Healton: An Ex-Smoker Sees Hope

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Healton: “Going against the tobacco industry is a marathon.”

By Michael Anft 

At her offices along Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of Washington’s Embassy Row, Cheryl Healton speaks through a rasp, the result of a day full of speaking engagements. Once “a little hippie chick who was chain-smoking by the time I was 15,” Healton maintains a bit of the fight-the-power attitude.

American Legacy’s name, she says, “used to remind me of a right-wing think tank. I’ve never liked it.”

She deals with the fallout from cigarettes daily, and personally. Several of her family members have fallen to lung cancer. She gets a spiral CT scan of her lungs each birthday to make sure there’s nothing growing inside them, and to catch it early if it is. “They can cure it in Stage 1,” she says. “Stage 2 – it’s over.”

Her sense of mission against powerful companies doesn’t mean that she or Legacy have perfectly aligned themselves with youth organizations around the country. She has heard the sotto voce complaints that Legacy has ignored youth organizations in favor of making grants to Ivy League colleges for research and to minority organizations that represent people who have been targeted by tobacco marketers.

She doesn’t believe the complaints are legitimate. “We work with thousands of youths every year to develop our campaigns because they change out every six months, ever since 2000,” she says. (The ads are then produced by “tobacco control and marketing professionals,” says a Legacy spokeswoman.)

Healton sees signs of a potentially powerful confluence of anti-tobacco forces in the offing. A lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and anti-smoking groups against tobacco companies could further weaken the tobacco industry. A federal appeals court found in favor of the government this summer, but the companies plan to take their case to the Supreme Court.

In June, Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate tobacco as a drug – a move that would make it easier to reduce nicotine levels, or get some of the hundreds of toxic chemicals out of cigarette tobacco.

And, Healton points out, anti-tobacco activists now hold key positions in the federal government, including William Corr, former executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, now deputy secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I can’t remember a time we’ve had so many of the right people in the right places,” she says.

She remains optimistic about Legacy’s work and sees its continuation as vital in a fight that will likely last a long time. “In my opinion, if smoking in the United States got down to three percent, I’d consider that eradication,” Healton says. “We might live to see that in this country. It might be time to shut [Legacy] down then, but we still have a long battle ahead of us.”