Poverty and addiction to tobacco. Either circumstance by itself is difficult to live with. But unfortunately, as Dr. Jasjit S. Ahluwalia learned from his experience working in a city hospital, these two challenges are often linked. One perpetuates the other – the person who struggles financially may take comfort in the perceived stress relief of cigarettes, whereas the cigarettes not only cost the person money, but also health. Sickness and disease brought on by the suppressed immune system courtesy of the cigarettes send the person to the doctor more often, thereby incurring medical bills and prescription costs, and further taxing the smoker’s wallet. The cycle is vicious, and when paired with lack of knowledge of healthy eating and exercise habits, can lead to cancer, heart disease, and other catastrophic health problems.
After finishing a fellowship at Harvard in 1992, Dr. Ahluwalia moved to Atlanta to join the staff at Emory University. He also began working at Grady Memorial Hospital, a large, public urban facility located squarely in the downtown area. It was there that he recognized the plight of the city’s inner-city poor. “I was seeing patients and I was amazed at how much of what they were being admitted for could have been prevented,” he said. “Their diets were terrible, they were smoking and many had alcohol problems. They’d come in and we’d do a tune-up, and then they’d come back in a month later.”
Dr. Ahluwalia regularly saw dozens of the same patients who were overweight, diabetic, addicted to smoking, and didn’t exercise at all. The risk factors for disease and chronic illness were stacked against these folks, and he knew something had to change. He’d been interested in examining tobacco addiction as a resident and a fellow, but only found real reason to make it a priority when he saw the extra burden it placed on Atlanta’s urban poor and lower middle class. That’s when he discovered the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
He was awarded a grant, and the funding helped him study the smoking habits of the city’s poor. He also found something surprising. Despite the myth, poor people actually wanted to quit – they just needed help do it successfully. He and his team came up with plenty of data and published their findings. That, in turn, led to higher-level funding, including his first R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health – quite a big deal in the research community. He began working on behavioral research projects that study the choices we make every day and hasn’t looked back.
Dr. Ahluwalia has since moved to the University of Minnesota Medical School and its School of Public Health. He is a professor in the departments of internal medicine and epidemiology and associate dean of clinical research in the medical school. As you can imagine, he’s pretty busy. But he doesn’t let that stop him from taking part in new research by up-and-coming scientists. He estimates he’s mentored or worked with at least eight young researchers who’ve been funded by the Prevent Cancer Foundation, as he himself was mentored by an early grantee of the Foundation. “Foundations like the Prevent Cancer Foundation are critical during these times because you need funding and support at the start of your career,” he said.
Recently, he’s been involved with studies on the fruit and vegetable consumption among those who live in public housing. The findings were encouraging, with servings increasing one a day in the group receiving the intervention to increase fruits and vegetables.