The fight that won’t quit
31 August 2020 at 8:14 am
As the director of Quit Victoria Dr Sarah White is on a mission to not only lower the rate of smoking but change the way it’s viewed as a health issue. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Despite what the tobacco industry will have us believe, White knows that smoking is an addiction and not a lifestyle choice.
Globally, smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease. It reduces the effectiveness of pain medication, increases the risk of hospital acquired infections, and increases the length of stay in hospitals.
Addiction is also more common among people with mental illness and disadvantaged communities.
After stepping into the role in 2014, White is fighting to change the way the public and health professionals see smoking, as well as developing new ways and models of helping people overcome addiction, and advocating for tighter regulation of the tobacco industry.
Her leadership is backed by years of experience working in policy development, public advocacy and government relations, and extensive experience in communicating research and media relations in organisations such as the Royal Women’s Hospital, and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in New York.
In this week’s Changemaker, White discusses the battle for change, how she stays grounded and managing a team from afar.
What impact are you trying to have at Quit Victoria?
The impact I’m trying to have at the moment is really nothing less than trying to change how people see smoking and specifically how health professionals see smoking. We’ve really been operating in a frame that’s been set by tobacco company marketing, that smoking is a lifestyle choice, when really, smoking is an addiction. What I’m really trying to do is get health professionals particularly, but also people who smoke, to understand that actually it is an addiction. It’s medically recognised as an addiction, and so we need to take it seriously without stigma for the person who is smoking. It might not sound like much, but it’s actually a huge battle to get some health professionals to see it as something that it is their responsibility.
Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease, and it reduces the effect of pain medication, it increases the risk of hospital acquired infections, and it increases the length of stay in hospitals. And I think that some of what I bring to the role is more of a medical lens, rather than a purely policy and legislative reform lens, which is often what we think about in public health and smoking. So it has all these immediate clinical impacts, it’s not just something that you choose not to do so you don’t get cancer one day, it’s actually a really immediate clinical issue.
What does your day look like as a director of Quit Victoria, and has that changed since COVID?
In most ways the work that I’m doing hasn’t changed in lockdown because a lot of what I do is talking with stakeholders, it’s working on some of the program activities, and working with my managers as they carry out their respective functions. So in some ways, the nature of the work hasn’t changed. It’s just the location, and then of course adding on things like home schooling has made it slightly different. But the actual nature of the work that we’re doing hasn’t changed a lot.
What are some of the things you do to keep yourself grounded during stressful situations?
I really try to switch off at the end of the day. I make sure I’m getting outside for a little bit of exercise, even if it’s just a walk with the dog.
But I think staying grounded is probably not the difficult part, I think the challenges lie in trying to stop everybody getting deflated, because this lockdown situation has been going for so long, and although the team is very resilient, I think we’re all getting a bit flat. And so as the leader of the team I’m always trying to find ways to make sure we’re still connecting with everybody in the organisation and keeping people motivated and doing what they need to do for themselves, too.
What’s some advice you’ve received that’s helped you throughout your career?
I don’t know if there’s a particular piece of advice that’s guided me, it’s more been about working with some really fantastic people and watching what they do and why. I worked overseas for quite some time at a New York based organisation, and I worked with some really amazing lawyers, scientists and business people as well where I learned so much. When I came back to Australia, I worked for five years with Dale Fisher, who was CEO of the Royal Women’s Hospital. She was a fantastic lady and after working with the men in New York, it really showed me that good leaders do employ their gut instinct and do really flex their empathy. I think that sometimes in the corporate world, we are told to not worry about gut instinct and instead follow rules. But actually, what I’ve learnt over the years is that gut instinct is a really important thing to listen to.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of my job by far is when I meet people who tell me they used to smoke and have stopped, and how it’s changed their life. And whether it’s because they feel so much better, or their kids are proud of them, or they’re saving money, the number of people who tell their stories is so inspiring.
It’s hearing these stories that makes every other challenging part of my job absolutely worthwhile.