Students Research Tobacco Use, Putting Theory into Practice

Univ. Communications – According to a 2011 World Health Organization report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, India is poised to lose more lives to smoking in the next generation than any other country. This startling statistic has inspired three UR students—Karishma Dara, Emma Caldwell, and Anupa Gewali—to travel to a Ladakh, a remote region in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, to research patterns of tobacco use among youth. The goal of their research has been to provide the community in Ladakh with data about its tobacco use in order to help design intervention strategies and quitting resources.

Dara ’12, an anthropology major, Caldwell ’13, an environmental studies and public health major, and Gewali ’12, also a public health major, all took a seminar with Professor Nancy Chin last year, exploring the landscape of tobacco use in countries such as the Dominican Republic. Chin had previously done research in Ladakh and wanted to go back; this past August, Chin brought the three undergraduates and a graduate student to the region, and they set out to explore the community’s relationship to tobacco.

“We had an idea of what our skills were and what our interests were but we kind of left it to the community to tell us what they needed from us,” said Gewali. Their starting point was the health department in Leh, the largest city and capital of Ladakh. The students offered their knowledge and qualitative research skills and since the health department was very concerned about tobacco use by school children, they were asked to focus their research energies on that topic.

“We specifically looked at gender roles and how they impact youth tobacco use,” said Caldwell. Traditionally, in this isolated, mountainous, desert region of India smoking was designated as a male-only activity. The majority of the population is either Buddhist or Muslim and in the contexts of both religious communities smoking is viewed negatively, especially for women. However, the onset of globalization and the explosion of tourism in Ladakh since the 1970’s have made smoking a sudden and ubiquitous presence in the public sphere.

At the center of the students’ project were interviews with adolescent smokers themselves as well as communication with organizations who are concerned by the rise of smoking and its glamorization. They focused on the effect of tobacco use on adolescent girls who often perceive smoking as “a symbol of freedom,” Dara explained.

Though there are laws against smoking in public, they are not enforced and many people do not know about them. Since Ladakh has thrived from the influx of European tourism, and since many tourists smoke themselves, the locals shy away from imposing regulations that could negatively impact a major source of revenue. This further exacerbates the problem of smoking among young people.

The students found that if Ladakh continues on the same trend, in the next ten years the amount of females smoking is going to rapidly increase. They were alarmed to interview children as young as eleven and twelve years of age who had “no idea how to quit,” Cladwell said.

Though smoking is on the rise throughout India, in bigger cities and more populous regions there are more prevention and quitting resources to counteract the proliferation of smoking.  But, in Ladakh, as Gewali explained, “There were so many times when we would be interviewing ten, thirteen-year-old boys and they’d be like ‘wait, there’s a way to quit smoking?’  It’s literally a new concept.”

The students hope that the data they collected and presented back to community organization will be a vital tool to devise intervention strategies and establish quitting resources.  However, this project is just getting started and though it will eventually become a self-sustaining community health program coordinated independently by Ladakhis, in the next few years the students hope to continue assisting this community and bring more UR students to participate in the effort.

After all, the experience was not only important in helping a community struggling with a public health crisis, but it also provided an invaluable opportunity for the students themselves to grow as researchers. Dara, Caldwell, and Gewali are now working on submitting their findings for publication and applying to participate in conferences.

“We’re really eager to talk to people about this because it’s such an important opportunity. It’s really important that it keeps going not just because this community has been started on this track of intervention, but we’ve identified a really big need and we found that it can really benefit students here to have this experience,” Gewali said.

Dara stressed the importance of the application of the theories and methods social science students learn in Rochester classrooms.  Merely learning these approaches is not enough to create a realistic idea about field work and data collection. The students practiced interview skills for months with one another and in the city of Rochester, but nothing could adequately prepare them for their encounters with the community in Ladakh. “When you’re just having a conversation with a kid about why he started smoking it’s so different and it’s so much more powerful,” said Dara.

The University of Rochester name was connected with all of the students’ activities and the community in Ladakh now sees that the University is devoted to this project. The students are hoping that these sorts of engagements between the University and the world will continue and multiply.

“Hopefully the school will see that we benefited so much from this, we’re so passionate about it, that they will make more of an effort to give these opportunities to the undergraduate population,” Cladwell concluded.

Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia (www.out-of-russia.com) and the other to photography (www.myorientalism.com).

Photo courtesy of Anupa Gewali ’12.