The Tobacco Wars

The Tobacco Wars

Consider the numbers: 1,200 deaths a day in the U.S. from smoking-related causes; 4,000 kids a day who try their first cigarette. But what Meg Riordan, MPH '02, finds most compelling are the stories: the young woman in North Carolina who is raising her son by herself because his father died from a smoking-related disease; the grandmother in California who cares for her grandson because the boy's mother— her daughter—died from smoking.

"It's mind-blowing when you know the numbers of people and families affected by tobacco use," says Riordan, director of policy research for the Washington, D.C.–based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Even though her office is charged with being the "number crunchers, responsible for all of the data that we use in our advocacy and communication efforts," Riordan says she's ever mindful that the work she and her colleagues do "is real stuff that can impact people's lives. Public health matters."

Key moments during her ten years with the campaign include passage of the Affordable Care Act—which requires coverage for treatment to help smokers quit and provides funding for tobacco-prevention programs—and passage of legislation in 2009 giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products. The second effort, Riordan remembers, took years of "blood sweat, and tears, but has the potential to be a major, major game-changer in driving down tobacco use."

Riordan got interested in politics as an undergraduate, but it was a class on Medicare, Medicaid, and the U.S. health system that led her into public health. "I thought, this is real. This is a real public policy issue."

What does she hope to achieve through her work with the tobacco-free campaign? "Before I hang up my boots, I'd love to see the smoking rate in this country fall below ten percent for both adults and young people. We've made a lot of progress, but smoking rates are still way too high. People want to quit. It's a disease. A lot of people—especially people who've never smoked—don't understand how addictive this product is."