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Is a totally tobacco-free Wichita possible? This group thinks so.

The Tobacco Free Wichita Coalition uses community engagement and state grants to promote respiratory health and save lives.

By Stefania Lugli

Kids playing at Carla’s Curiosity Corner, a Clean Air Child Care provider. Picture provided by Shelley Rich

Flavored nicotine has robbed tobacco cigarettes of its national health-scare spotlight in the modern era of vapes and e-cigs. While e-cigarettes and vapes do not usually contain outright tobacco, the nicotine does come from tobacco, a highly addictive substance, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention cites more than 480,000 annual death as a result of smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, marking tobacco use as the number one preventable cause of death in the United States.

According to Tobacco Free Wichita Coalition, about 20% of Wichita residents identify as regular smokers. The Medical Society of Sedgwick County is a recent recipient of the Kansas Chronic Disease Risk Reduction Grant, which provides funding, training and technical assistance to communities to address chronic disease risk reduction impacting tobacco use, physical activity and nutrition.

Planeta Venus interviewed Shelley Rich, the tobacco control coordinator for the Coalition, about the prevalence of tobacco use in Wichita, and how she has dedicated her work to eliminating as many preventable deaths as possible — starting at infancy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

These days, it doesn’t seem like people usually think of tobacco as a major health issue as much as they used to. Why is this an issue that should be more in the forefront of a community’s awareness?

Tobacco is the most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the United States. So by not smoking tobacco, you could prevent heart disease and disability from the effects of smoking it. That’s why I think that health promotion is important because it prevents these chronic diseases — which just adds so much stress and burden to not just a person's life, but society.

Over the years there’s been more regulations and warning signs posted on tobacco products, but a good example of what’s not being regulated currently is e-cigarettes and all those new products with flavors marketed to kids to get them addicted and paying for nicotine at a young age. So, yeah, I think that there’s still a lot of work to be done in tobacco.

Wichita has a Tobacco Retail License Program, meaning that a so-called “tobacco coordinator” goes around and checks retailers to confirm they are not selling to anyone under the age of 21. Is that enough of a preventative measure?

Businesses do get a ticket and fine if they are caught selling underage. Wichita’s had that established for quite a few years, so we’re lucky in that regard. But Tobacco Free Wichita would like to work on updating that retail license ordinance. The wording’s a little loose. Right now, only a clerk that sells cigarettes is fined, but we think an additional penalty should go towards the store’s owner.

In 2021, you won a wellness award for being considered an “integral part of the health and wellness community for nearly two decades” in Wichita. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that journey. Have you always been focused on tobacco consumption? How did you establish community in your work?

I love that question. My undergraduate is in kinesiology and health promotion, my master’s in exercise science. I wanted to work in worksite wellness because I believe that people should work in a healthy environment. There needs to be healthy options for an employee to be more productive and attain a healthy balance between work and life and things like that. I also worked as a lifeguard, swim team coach and swim instructor.

Then I started working at Wichita State where I eventually started an employee wellness committee at the university and got involved in the health wellness coalition, getting involved with promoting physical activity and healthy eating.

What’s the next step for the Tobacco Free Coalition?

With the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction Grant, we’re working on tobacco-free childcare now. Currently, the way regulations are written for in-home daycare, the rules are that a daycare provider cannot smoke while the child is present. Okay, so, kids leave at 5:30 at night, provider smokes in the house all evening, and the next morning when the child arrives, the child is in danger of secondhand smoke exposure! Ever since I found out about this, I’m like, ‘this is crazy. We’ve got to fix this,’ and I think it brings awareness to the topic (of a tobacco-free Wichita).

Your child could be safe at daycare, but employees are going out on smoke breaks morning, lunch, afternoon… and then they come back, holding your child and, you know, the child’s head right next to their hair and jacket they wore while smoking… they could be exposed to secondhand smoke.

Because of this work, I have done several training sessions with daycare providers, in-person and online, just to educate them about the importance of tobacco free environments. Our coalition has also developed a clean-air-childcare recognition program to uplift childcare providers going above and beyond current regulations to implement a 100% tobacco-free environment.

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