Faculty Spotlight - Cliff Douglas

Cliff Douglas is an adjunct professor in HMP and the Vice President for Tobacco Control and Director of the ACS Center for Tobacco Control at the American Cancer Society. He has served as an advocate, lawyer, and policy advisor for twenty seven years in the field of domestic and international tobacco control.

About this image

Cliff Douglas enjoying the beach on one of his many trips to Thailand working on tobacco control advocacy and legislation.

What is your passion/inspiration/mission?

My passion is health and consumer protection and I am motivated by the well-being of people. Very early in my career I became aware of two things and these two things have inspired my passion ever since; 1) the severity of the tobacco epidemic and that it kills 1 out of 5 Americans, and 2) the epidemic is deliberately perpetrated by an industry. The analogy I like to use is to think about this in terms of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes spread malaria but there is no well-financed lobby of mosquitoes fighting for their right to continue to spread malaria, but with tobacco that is what we are dealing with. As an activist this really angered and motivated me because I wasn't only fighting for health but I was fighting against the "bad guys". I tell my students this joke on the first day of class; they will discover that tobacco control is also addictive. This is why a lot of the leaders in tobacco control, including myself, have been doing it for such a long time.

What has been your career path in global health up until now?

I have been working on tobacco control for twenty-seven years. I began in 1988 representing the large U.S. voluntary health organizations [the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association] in Congress, before the executive branch, in the media, and at the grassroots advocacy level. One of the first big campaigns that I was involved in was to coordinate the national campaign for the airline smoking ban. A component of this work was with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to promote the adoption of policies that would prohibit smoking on airplanes all around the world. When I began working in tobacco, the US government was working quite aggressively to promote the interests of the tobacco industry globally by breaking down trade barriers in countries that were limiting transnational tobacco companies' ability to market their products to vulnerable populations. The companies wanted to target new markets like women and youth in these countries. At the time Thailand had pretty strict limits on advertising for cigarettes and was imposing higher-than-typical tobacco taxes, and the major cigarette companies were trying to weaken those laws by enlisting the U.S. governments to threaten trade sanctions. We had some success in thwarting the tobacco companies' efforts.

One of my focuses globally over the last three years has also been to serve on the legal team defending the nation of Uruguay, which is being sued by Phillip Morris International. PMI produces Marlboro, the world's leading cigarette brand. In recent years Uruguay adopted very strong tobacco control laws including groundbreaking package warnings and labeling. PMI filed a trade treaty complaint against Uruguay claiming an unfair trade burden on Phillip Morris to market their cigarettes.

What prepared you to work in global health once you discovered it?

I grew up with global awareness from my parents. When I was very young we lived in Japan, where my father was teaching on a Fulbright in Okayama. When I graduated from law school, rather than going right to work I chose to backpack around the world for 6 months visiting over 25 countries. This experience really exposed me to what I came to regard as the "real world." It helped me become less provincial and U.S.-centric, and germinated my desire to more actively engage in international efforts. If you really want to work on improving the welfare of the human race, obviously it is critical for some of us to get involved globally, and this is particularly true of when dealing with the enormous public health burden imposed on the world by tobacco use, which is the leading preventable cause of death globally as well as in the U.S. If we really want to have the greatest reach and impact, then we need to look beyond our own borders.

What global work are you currently undertaking?

There has been the continued relationship with Thailand and helping to defend Uruguay. Otherwise it is generally coordinating with our allies around the world about legislative and policy strategies, and capacity building. My work now involves fostering growing collaboration globally in relation to my work for the American Cancer Society. We are working with the Framework Convention Alliance, a coalition of 300 organizations around the world that are working to accomplish the goals of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a set of comprehensive guidelines on cracking down on advertising and packaged warnings, spreading smoke free policies, and diminishing the political influence of the tobacco industry. One of our current activities is for the American Cancer Society to play a lead convening and motivational role around the world to engage some of our sister anti-cancer organizations in LMICs [low and middle income countries] to take on greater leadership roles in promoting tobacco control in-country.

What advice do you have for students who’d like to get involved in global public health work or research?

There are a lot of players and stakeholders in tobacco control, and networking is critical to work in this field. Casting your net in the direction of places where there might be opportunities involving civil society organizations that work abroad is invaluable. Working with the folks here at SPH who are experts in the field is also a good approach. If you have the interest, it can be a wonderful opportunity in support of your education and the development of your career to pursue an internship abroad. The more you wade into it, the more people you get to know and the greater your exposure you to the huge variety of opportunities out there. You might get exposed to and inspired by something that you didn't know about before. My entire career has been based on that opportunistic and often nonlinear approach. I decided while I was backpacking after law school that I wanted to do something that mattered, to society and to me, and that I wanted to work with others who were committed to doing the right thing, even if my role was to do nothing more elegant than sweeping floors where good was being done. Most of my career has therefore ended up being in policy advocacy. I had the good fortune when I started to have an excellent mentor and to work for a coalition of public health organizations (the Coalition on Smoking or Health, representing the cancer, heart and lung groups), that was at the time poorly funded and under-staffed, which meant that I got to jump into the deep end working with the media, lobbying Congress, writing, doing research, and coordinating grassroots activities. I committed to myself that I would give that first job at least two years, but I stayed for four and am still working on combating the tobacco epidemic twenty seven years later.

My generic advice to those who are starting out, when so much life and opportunity still lies ahead, is: Be flexible. Be creative. Be open. Be willing to try something that is scary, and take some reasonable risks. Most things that we attempt that have value and merit bring some anxiety with them. Taking the approaches I've suggested will enable you to try things that are more likely to really matter, and with which you can make a real difference.

Are there opportunities for students to engage in your projects, currently or in the future? What skills would they need, and what could they expect to learn?

I am in this phase with the American Cancer Society where I have taken on significant external responsibilities, which why I am not teaching this year and have less of a presence on campus. However, we have a number of faculty who are involved in this subject matter; Professors David Mendez and Hollie Jarman come to mind, among others. There are certainly opportunities to look into assisting faculty members with research and to pursue interesting internship opportunities either domestically or globally. I and others are delighted to try and facilitate finding such opportunities.

[Professor Douglas teaches HMP618 "Tobacco: From Seedling to Social Policy", which will likely be offered in the 2016-17 school year.]

What do you like best about the places you have been globally?

There are too many to choose from. I would say Italy for art and Switzerland for mountains. Hiking around the Alps is incredible, and there is nothing like the art you find in Rome and Florence. I also really liked cycling in the mountains and white water rafting in Costa Rica and hiking the ice fields in British Colombia. The cultures, people, and of course food, you find in places like Thailand, India, Latin America and so many other places are so diverse and incredible that, for anyone who can find a way, it really is essential to explore the world. It will change your life.

Learn more about Professor Douglas’ work

Written: July 19, 2016