Coalition celebrates 15 years

GREENFIELD — Hancock County leaders’ efforts to reduce the amount of people using tobacco have served as a model for counties around the state.

That was the message of Miranda Spitznagle, the director of the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Commission, during a celebration of the county’s tobacco-free coalition Friday. In the last decade and a half, the county has led the way in its decisions regarding smoke-free and e-cigarette-free workplaces, Spitznagle said.

The county’s smoking rate was listed this year at 18 percent, compared with the state’s 23 percent, according to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which analyzes issues affecting population health.

People involved in anti-tobacco efforts recounted the achievements made throughout the Hancock County Tobacco-Free Coalition’s 15 years on Friday and committed to continuing the fight against tobacco use in the years to come.

Brandee Bastin, Hancock Regional Hospital tobacco initiative coordinator, celebrated the more than 40 coalition members and partners, as well as youth advocates and elected officials, who supported efforts to ban smoking from public spaces, and former smokers who now speak up about the drug’s impacts on their lives.

“Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death,” Bastin said, adding that ailments related to tobacco use claim 480,000 U.S. lives per year. “People talk about epidemics. This is our No. 1 epidemic.”

Bastin listed a number of local and statewide programs she has used through the years to help county residents quit smoking, from local cessation classes at the hospital to text- and phone-based counseling offered by the state.

One of the first students to join Hancock County’s VOICE, a high-school anti-smoking advocacy group, returned to the county to talk about its impact on his life. Curt Merlau, a 2006 Greenfield-Central High School graduate, who has worked in education and education reform, said Bastin’s efforts stirred a passion for advocacy that continues to guide him.

“I don’t believe in self-made successes,” he said. “Any successful person has a long line of others lifting them up, and Brandee was that person for me.”

Bastin’s goal to keep youth from starting tobacco use continues, and much of her future focus will be on educating county youth about the risks associated with less traditional forms of smoking, such as e-cigarettes or vaping, she said.

The tobacco-free coalition and its allies across the state have made progress in changing the perception of smoking, she said. Ninety percent of Indiana youths polled now say they don’t think smoking looks cool, she said.

Winning ways

The Hancock County Tobacco-Free Coalition handed out two awards at its 15th anniversary celebration Friday.

Volunteer of the year: Jeff Slinker

Advocate of the year: Steve Long

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Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.