A career in tobacco control advocacy

12-thomasThomas Glynn
American Cancer Society, RET.
12-flag United States of America
09 Oct 2014

Thomas J. Glynn, PhD, recently retired from the American Cancer Society where held positions as Director of Cancer Science and Trends and Director of International Cancer Control. The American Cancer Society is a founding partner of Global Bridges.

How did you get involved in this type of work? What was the motivation?

I started out working as a psychologist in the area of heroin addiction in the mid-1970’s and noticed that a very large percentage – 75% or more – of the heroin users with whom I was working also smoked cigarettes.

Around this time, I began working at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (now part of the National Institutes of Health) which had just begun a research program on nicotine and tobacco use. I gradually moved into that area, moving, as I described it then, from illicit drug use – heroin – to licit drug use – cigarettes.

You have said there are significant challenges to global tobacco control, including quitting, “but none is insurmountable – despite the ways in which multinational tobacco companies undermine our best efforts. It will require the focused effort of tobacco control advocates working together with governments, civil society, and organizations such as Global Bridges, to address these challenges.” With this in mind, what would you suggest tobacco control advocates do to address these significant challenges?

Some of the greatest challenges facing tobacco control advocates are burnout and loss of motivation. This is understandable. Tobacco control advocates work incredibly hard, have a well-funded enemy – the tobacco industry – and the results of their advocacy often take some time to be seen.

But tobacco control advocates have many things on their side that can help them address these challenges. These include:

  1. Science – While the tobacco industry twists, distorts and simply lies about tobacco use and its effects, tobacco control advocates have always had good science to use when advocating for tobacco control.
  2. History – It takes time and effort but David always beats Goliath and tobacco control advocacy always beats the tobacco industry. For example, global tobacco use rates have fallen, we now have an international tobacco treaty and good policies are in place or planned everywhere. Tobacco control advocates need to take a step back every once in a while and consider the history of tobacco use and understand their efforts are having an effect and lives are being saved every day.
  3. Collaborations – Tobacco control advocates have literally hundreds of potential partners to join them in their work, both to share the efforts and to make them more effective, with the best example being the Framework Convention Alliance, whose hundreds of members and collaborative approach played a major role in securing a strong WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

What were the biggest challenges you faced during your career?

The biggest challenge has always been the power – financial and political – of the tobacco industry. I have seen that power wane over time, and have seen the tobacco industry be convicted of felonious behavior but there is no question that the industry retains many friends in politics at the local, state, and federal levels, and remains a formidable force capable of continuing to kill millions of people worldwide every year.

Are there any success stories you would like to share?

I have seen a lot of success stories in tobacco control over the past 35 years, but two stand out for me, both of which involved large bureaucratic institutions taking a chance and doing the right thing.

One was the courage of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and especially Drs. Vincent Devita, Peter Greenwald, and Joseph Cullen, in the early 1980’s, where I had the privilege of working then, in standing up to pro-tobacco congressmen and senators and funding a new initiative – the Smoking, Tobacco, and Cancer Program – which would eventually grow into a $250 million + program which laid the research groundwork for many of the tobacco control successes that we are enjoying today.

The second was the courage of the World Health Organization, and especially Drs. Gro Harlem Brundtland and Derek Yach, in fighting for and eventually seeing the approval of the world’s first public health treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC now provides the road-map for ending the scourge of tobacco use.

Is there anything you would like to add?

One last point – the history of public health has consistently demonstrated that success always follows good science. It may take time, as it did for us to eradicate Smallpox, or it may be faster, as it was with the development of a polio vaccine, but it is always good science which leads the way.

We need to continue to support good tobacco control science, and for tobacco control advocates, to use that science in convincing policymakers to do the right things about tobacco control. If we do that and demonstrate some – but not too much – patience, millions of lives and much needless suffering will be prevented.