Meliora Leader Tackles Smoking Cessation

By Caitlin Mack ’12 (T5)
Univ. Communications

Sanah Ali ’13 is part of an initiative to tackle smoking, one of America’s most controversial, decades-long health issues, as part of the Meliora Leaders Program at the Rochester Center for Community Leadership (RCCL).  Ali is working with the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Healthy Living Center (HLC) to help conduct a five year follow-up study to the Smoker’s Health Project, which includes advising patients interested in quitting smoking and recruiting those interested in services at the clinic.

The tobacco program offered by the HLC is free for U of R employees and allows smokers to meet with a doctor or a psychologist.  Program participants undergo a health evaluation and are given a doctor-prescribed “quit plan” of personalized and some not-so-obvious methods to quit smoking, in addition to medications that aid withdrawal symptoms if necessary.

“We find out about U of R employees who smoke via a voluntary personal health assessment.” says Ali.  “Helping them come in is the first hurdle. Often people wait for indications of decimating health before seeking help.”

For Ali, one of the hardest parts of her work has been broaching the subject of smoking with potential program participants. “It’s not like you can go up to someone and ask if they want to quit smoking,” says Ali. “Some people find it rude or may not want to be identified as smokers. Helping people in a polite and effective way is what I’m aiming for.”

On the other hand, Ali’s favorite part of the experience has been hearing the life stories and unique experiences (struggles and successes) with tobacco of the patients she works with.

One thing that surprised Ali was the strong stigma against medications recommended to help people quit.  As a result, she hopes to “increase awareness that although meds may have side effects or may add to concerns about dependence, these meds are not addictive and are for temporary use. The adverse effects of continuing to smoke overshadow any side effects of meds.”

Ali is intrigued by the biopsychosocial model of medicine developed at Rochester decades ago by Drs. George Engel and John Romano and hopes to incorporate aspects of it in the future as a practicing physician.

“The biopsychosocial model exemplifies the concept of holistic patient care, and points out that intrinsic motivation, living situation, lifestyle, support from family or friends, and mental health affect the likelihood of a long-lasting quit,” says Ali. “There’s only so much that a health care practitioner can do.”  In addition, Ali explains, “If someone smokes and everyone else in the environment does too, it’s going to be a lot tougher for them to quit because of the constant reminder.”

Ali also explains that there is increasing evidence for interplay between factors affecting smoking habits. For example, we know that caffeine stays in your system 40 percent longer when you’re not smoking and can increase anxiety and nicotine cravings; as a result, patients are advised to reduce their caffeine intake when they are trying to quit smoking.  Other unpopular side effects of smoking cessation include experiencing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms or weight gain due to changes in metabolism.

Ali, a Pittsford, N.Y. native and a cell and developmental biology major, hopes to pursue a career in healthcare and continue her involvement with smoking cessation. She intends to expand her work to free clinics, including “UR Well,” a clinic for uninsured patients and “UR Street Medicine” for the homeless population. She also is interested in promoting tobacco awareness at primary schools. In addition to her efforts in Rochester, Ali has travelled to Islamabad, Pakistan to study the smoking habits of high school students there.

Ali is one of five students accepted to the Meliora Leaders Program for the 2012-2013 academic year. The program, offered through the Rochester Center for Community Leadership (RCCL), gives undergraduates the chance to create individualized service projects, allowing them to exercise intensive leadership in the Rochester community for an extended period of time. The program benefits organizations and individuals in need while providing a substantial learning experience for the students involved.

This article is part three of a series that features the Meliora Leaders of 2012-2013. Undergraduates interested in participating in the program should look for information on the RCCL page in the coming months. Information about the program can be found on the RCCL page at http://rochester.edu/college/rccl/meliora.html.