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Research Unit Focuses On What It Takes to Quit : Institute Seeks to Snuff Out Smoking

Associated Press

When smoker professors returned to their offices two years ago for the fall semester at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, they discovered they had become overnight victims of a coup d’ashtray.

The school’s own Institute for the Study of Smoking Behavior and Policy had struck.

Those who chose to puff away inside the buildings were forced to retreat to a small room, a smokers’ purgatory with glass walls and hard chairs.

The small, wiry man behind it all, Prof. Thomas Schelling, himself a reformed smoker, was remorseful about the smoking section. But not for long.

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“I thought it was cruel and unusual punishment, but a student said: ‘Don’t be hasty. Because of it I gave up smoking and so did my friend.’ ”

Harnessing Social Change

Everyone knows smoking tobacco is unhealthy. But the way in which a habit once considered sophisticated was transformed into a taboo is the kind of social change Schelling, as director of the Smoking Institute, wants to understand and harness.

Schelling’s mission? “I want to help smokers,” he says. By this he means persuading the 55 million American smokers to stop.

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“The original emphasis was on what can we find out about the problem of quitting that will help people quit when they want to,” says the 67-year-old economist and self-taught behaviorist. “Now we’re focusing more on policy issues.”

Schelling made a prediction: “Smoking will disappear, slowly. In 50 years people will still be smoking, but much less.”

While other research groups examine the health effects of smoking, Harvard’s is thought to be the only one considering the deeper meaning of the habit.

“There isn’t anything like it anywhere else in the world,” says Dr. Elena Nightingale, adviser to the Carnegie Foundation of New York, a major institute sponsor.

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Sees Need for Effort

The idea of such an institute was born about six years ago, when Schelling expressed fascination with the cessation of smoking since World War II by scores of middle-class, middle-aged men. He promoted meetings on the subject, convincing Harvard President Derek Bok among others that a more ambitious effort was needed.

Since it opened four years ago, this small, obscure research center at Harvard University already has reached into more distant halls than the smoke-free ones under its roof.

Operating as a continuing forum, the institute is host to a study group of 20 to 40 interested health, government and psychological professionals who meet monthly to discuss and exchange the latest research.

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In addition, at any given time some 15 assorted physicians, psychiatrists, students of government policy, health workers, sociologists and the like attached to the institute conduct independent research. This could be anything from writing a social history of smoking to studies on the effectiveness of hypnosis in breaking tobacco addiction.

Rush of Volunteers

The work of the institute is so compelling, for smokers especially, that when a psychologist was running a study of smokers at a Veterans Adminstration hospital, she asked that its name not be published in a newspaper story about the institute. Publishing the name in the past caused a rush of volunteers that inundated the hospital.

The purpose of the institute, on an annual budget of $600,000, is to prompt outside research and then disseminate the results. In the words of Executive Director John Pinney, a former three-pack-a-day smoker and one-time chief of the federal office of Smoking and Health: “We set out to be a convenor and stimulator.”

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Some results:

--Snuffing out much of the smoking culture in the U.S. military in 1986 by contributing to then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger’s decision to order aggressive anti-smoking efforts, from the Pentagon to boot camp.

--Helping persuade Congress in 1985 to keep the 16-cent federal excise tax on cigarettes instead of halving it as planned.

--Assisting foreign countries trying to resist U.S. tobacco companies eager for new markets.

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--Finding in a study that teen-agers, unlike adults, can start and stop smoking many times, thus prompting health educators to shift their approach from prevention to intervention.

--Prompting smoking restrictions in Massachusetts government office buildings and vehicles, after a chat Schelling had with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis at a Harvard get-together.

--Investigating life in a nearly smoke-free world through pollsters who work in a laboratory in the city of Cambridge, which last year instituted one of the country’s toughest anti-smoking laws.

Once upon a time smoking was considered stylish. Tobacco companies even claimed it offered health benefits.

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‘Remarkable Voluntary Change’

“What we’ve seen in this country is just about the most remarkable voluntary change in behavior anywhere,” Schelling says.

Institute researchers have tried to fathom this change and smoking behavior especially. They are asking, for instance, why some people never smoke and why others do despite knowing the risks. And why is it that most people who try to quit can, but hard-core smokers can’t part from cigarettes no matter how hard they try?

The institute is also eager to know how to prevent teen-agers from taking up smoking, since there is evidence that smoking is seldom begun past the age of 20.

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According to institute figures, there has been a steady decline in smoking since the 1950s. In 1949, 44% of adults smoked. In 1986, the latest available figures, the proportion of adult smokers was 26.5%, institute figures show.

Among people still smoking, most try to stop.

Just four years ago, only a dozen major corporations restricted smoking to avert fires and contamination of their products. Today more than half the Fortune 500 companies limit smoking on the job.

Risks Become Official

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Chief among the influences on this change is that after decades of concern about the life-shortening effects of smoking, the office of the U.S. surgeon general in 1964 made the risks official when it linked smoking to lung disease.

Since then, Americans have become more self-conscious about their health, taking up exercise and improving their diets with the gusto of the Old World explorers searching for the Fountain of Youth.

It is not only concern for personal health that is crushing the national smoking habit. Peer pressure has a lot to do with it.

“There is some moral opprobrium, the temperance notion that if you have to smoke, you have to suffer,” Schelling says.

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