Summer Plans Series: Smoking Cessation in the Foothills of the Himalayas

By Blake Silberberg ‘13
University Communications

This past June, four University of Rochester undergraduate students embarked on a month-long project to help reduce smoking in Leh, India. Led by Nancy Chin, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, the group included three majors in the health, behavior, and science program—Luke Slipski ‘13, Alice Gao ‘14, and Anisha Gundewar ’14—along with epidemiology major Lily Martyn ’14.

Leh is a remote, but populous town in the North of India near the Himalayas. Due to the popularity of trekking in the region, the town attracts tourists from all over the world, and as a result it has recently begun to undergo “westernization”, explains Slipski.

“With the tourists comes an increase in tobacco advertising and exposure,” explains Slipski. “High income countries like the U.S. have actually been doing a great job at battling big tobacco companies, so these companies are trying to exploit previously untapped markets in low-income countries. Because developing countries often lack the necessary public health infrastructure to control the epidemic of tobacco addiction, our goal is to help this particular town with its efforts to prevent adolescent tobacco use.”

lehwalkingChin has led three trips to Leh, starting in May 2011, each year taking a small group of students. This year’s project initially planned to check on the progress of an anti-smoking program that had been designed for the town in earlier trips. But arriving in Leh, the group discovered that those public heath initiatives had stalled. “Our new goal was to understand why the intervention didn’t work and what materials or support was needed to make another attempt,” explains Martyn. Another facet of this year’s trip involved training local leaders to conduct focus groups to identify improvements needed in the town’s health infrastructure. The group also shared the findings from a survey conducted last year in the community.

The group worked to rebuild relationships with the community that had faltered over the past year, vising the health department and meeting residents. Ultimately their goal was to generate community support for an anti-tobacco program in Leh’s schools. For Slipski, this was his second trip, and he took on additional responsibilities as team coordinator, working to organize meetings with community leaders, teachers, and students in Leh.

“Working in Leh is unique. They have an incredible existing infrastructure for community activism and collaboration between local organizations,” explains Slipski, “Other rural towns that we’ve visited certainly have a sense of community largely unseen in the U.S., but I think the support system between organizations in Leh and the collaboration between them is something special. Last year we got there and they were having an oratory competition for the local schools,” Slipski recounts.“ Students spoke about how detrimental pollution has been to Leh’s ecology. After the competition, they had a march through the main street in town to raise awareness.”

lehlilyBoth Martyn and Slipski describe the trip as a fantastic experience. “I loved working in the field on a project where I was able to translate my scholarly knowledge into action and intervention,” explains Martyn. “I find that hands on learning is the best way to get a full understanding of what you are taught. I am grateful I got the opportunity to go.”

Adds Slipski: “With a small group, we got loads of quality time with Chin, a highly trained field worker, to learn how the full process works. We do readings and have discussions before departure, and we continue to discuss and critique our work the entire time. We’re working with real communities and vulnerable populations, so she is careful to teach students how to make that relationship mutually beneficial. Her motto is ‘we never inflict the unprepared on the unsuspecting,’ and after two summers with her, I’m confident that her students never will.”

For those interested in reading more about the project, Luke Slipski maintained a blog during his time in Leh.

This story is part of the Summer Plans Series, a collection of stories about how undergrads at the University of Rochester are spending their summer. Know of someone doing something cool over break? Email The Buzz (thebuzz@rochester.edu) and tell us all about it!

lehsteps