Go to the Web site of the American Lung Association’s (ALA) District of Columbia chapter, and you’ll see this:
ALADC to Close its Doors This Spring.”
The item explains that as part of a restructuring, the D.C. chapter, as well as those in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, will close soon.
You’ll also see this item, a bit farther down:
“ALADC Announces an Historic Decline in District Smokers.”
That might leave you scratching your head.
What? An organization that contributed to a historic decline in smoking rates is shutting its doors just as it is part of an enormous success?
That’s right. It’s all about numbers and is linked to an overall restructuring started years ago by the national ALA. That’s the explanation, but it’s not the full story.
First of all, what the site doesn’t tell you is that the organization is historic. It started out in the early 1900s with a different name and mission: to fight tuberculosis. It worked to reduce tuberculosis rates well into the 1960s, when smoking became linked to heart and lung disease. It’s likely that ALA DC is one of the oldest nonprofit health organizations in this area.
ALA DC did a lot that many people were unaware of.
It hosted a “quitline,” a telephone service that counseled people who wanted to stop smoking. It offered counseling to children with asthma. It ran Camp Happy Lungs, which helped at-risk city kids deal with asthma and get a break in the country once a year. Thousands of D.C. residents benefited from the chapter’s services. It provided information for people dealing with chronic lung disease and emphysema.
Some of these services will continue; the quitline is being transferred to United Medical Center, and a few of the ALA DC employees will be working there on a contract basis (read: part-time, no benefits).
But other hands-on programs will end for good, to be replaced with information on the Web (hardly a good substitute).
So far, none of D.C.’s media have covered this story. So I’m writing this because the word needs to get out – this is too important an event to occur without anyone taking note.
Here’s what we have been able to gather about the restructuring: About six years ago, ALA national decided that having chapters in every state was duplicative and opted to merge the state chapters into already existing regional groups. So ALA DC was slated to merge in 2010 with the ALA Atlantic regional office, along with ALA chapters in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
But as the merger deadline approached, the numbers weren’t looking to good. In January, it appeared as though the Atlantic regional was on the verge of bankruptcy. Because ALA DC – and ALA chapters in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia – were in the region’s area, they were told they had to close too.
Never mind that ALA DC, with a $2 million budget, was financially solvent. Yes, it had the same financial issues many nonprofits are grappling with during this recession, but it could have made it.
Tobacco control experts will tell you reducing smoking rates – and therefore smoking-related diseases and the attendant health costs – takes three things working in combination: 1) a strong smokefree workplaces law; 2) a solid cessation program that helps people who want to quit do so; and 3) high tobacco taxes to deter young people from picking up cigarettes in the first place.
The District has the first and third, and attained the second largely thanks to a program housed at ALA DC.
In 2006, the DC Department of Health, ALA DC and the American Cancer Society jointly launched DC Tobacco Free Families, a three-year, $10 million campaign to reduce tobacco use prevalence among District residents, particularly disadvantaged populations. Run out of ALA DC, it got busy quickly. It did outreach and provided nicotine replacement therapy to low-income people. It ran mass transit ads and counseled callers.
Over three years, the number of District smokers significantly decreased (from 20.9 percent in 2004 to 16.2 percent in 2008) and the number of District smokers seeking assistance in quitting has significantly increased, with a 500 percent increase in calls to the quitline since 2006.
Bottom line: The program, combined with the strong smokefree workplaces law and higher tobacco taxes, worked. But the program folded this past fall because the District government pulled the funding. A close-out report on the program sums it up well:
As of October 1, 2009, the initial 3-year campaign ended, since funds were not renewed by the District government. Funding is no longer available for community partner grants or media campaigns. Given preliminary findings about the relationship between quitline call volume and media exposure, and the effectiveness of community partners in delivering appropriate services, it may be difficult for the District of Columbia to continue the trends toward reduced smoking prevalence and increased interest in quitting tobacco use.
So ALA DC got hit with a double whammy. First, the District cut a key cessation program. Then ALA national pulls the rug out from under the chapter.
Success in the tobacco control world is a constant effort. It is not something that is “won” and then is over and done with. The tobacco industry is wily and well-funded, and is always looking to expand its market. Fighting it takes constant vigilance and work by a variety of players on a variety of fronts.
ALA DC was a key component in the District’s fight. If we drop our efforts now, that smoking rate will jump back up, more people will get sick and the health care costs will ascend. And the politicians will wonder what happened.
We’ll miss ALA DC; the people who work there really care. We at Smokefree DC worked with them when pushing for a smokefree workplaces law in the District; they were always incredibly supportive and helped with the effort as much as they could.
So goodbye ALA DC. We hope you reinvent yourselves, re-emerge elsewhere and continue fighting the good fight.