The Aurora City Council made a mark Feb. 5 by passing the first ordinance in Colorado banning smoking in vehicles when passengers younger than 18 are present. The council did so with youthful prodding from an Aurora Girl Scout troop that received valuable support from a UCHealth employee with more than a casual interest in the ordinance.
Two weeks before the ordinance passed on a 6-5 vote, the council heard testimony from Kathleen Moreira, a tobacco treatment specialist with UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, about the dangers to kids of inhaling secondhand smoke and being exposed to thirdhand smoke – the residue, which includes nicotine, from exhaled tobacco smoke that settles on surfaces like upholstery, seatbelts and passengers’ clothes. These toxins are particularly dangerous to infants and toddlers who touch the contaminated areas and put their hands in their mouths.
Moreira helped to spearhead the hospital’s inpatient smoking cessation program and now heads its outpatient program, following about 100 patients seen by the Pulmonary Nodule Clinic, the Comprehensive Lung and Breathing Program and a pilot program at the UCHealth Internal Medicine Clinic – Lowry. She joined the efforts of Aurora Girl Scout Troop 60789, which launched its initiative last spring in a bid for a Silver Award, at the behest of troop leader Kristen Batcho. In addition, Jessica Berry, a media relations specialist, was interested in finding a way to lend UCHealth’s clinical expertise to supporting the troop’s service work and improving lives in the community.
Specialist for the Scouts
Moreira played a vital role in meeting that goal, said UCHealth Vice President of Government and Corporate Relations Jeff Thompson.
“Once again, one of our leading health care practitioners stepped forward to show how UCHealth can be a tremendous resource to the state of Colorado and the communities we serve,” he said. “Kathleen brought to the table the clinical and public health information that needed to come forward to help the Girl Scouts’ work to protect children from the dangers of secondhand smoke.”
Allen Wentworth, RRT, MEd, director of Respiratory Services at UCH, said Moreira was easily the best choice to address the council about those risks and the importance of encouraging adults to find positive reasons to quit smoking.
“Providers go to Kathleen for information about what she does in terms of interventions and reading patients to figure out how they can make a quit attempt,” Wentworth said. “From my perspective, it was great to tap into her expertise and passion to do something for herself and for UCHealth that is community-focused and supports both the Girl Scouts and the health of minors.”
In her introductory remarks to the council, Moreira noted that she has more than 10,000 hours of experience helping smokers break the addictive grip of nicotine. But she spoke from an even sharper point of perception. She is the mother of a four-year-old daughter, Maddie. She was a Girl Scout herself. And she is a former smoker who quit 11 years ago after 15 years of a pack-a-day habit.
“I’m grateful to have been smoke-free when I was pregnant and since,” Moreira said in an interview a few days after the ordinance passed. “It’s such a relief to not deal with that addiction and lack of control.”
The ordinance mandates community service for first-time offenders and makes smoking in vehicles with minors present a secondary offense – meaning officers can’t make the stop for that reason alone. Moreira stressed, however, that she supports the ordinance as a way to reduce harm to both adults and children, not as a way to mete out punishment to smokers or shame them.
“My goal is to educate parents and caregivers to make better choices,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand the impact of smoking in an enclosed space.”
Firsthand knowledge of a secondhand threat
The dangers of secondhand cigarette smoke are well established after 20 years of study, Moreira said. In her remarks to council members, she noted that exhaled smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals; hundreds of those are toxic and 70 are cancer-causing.
“The smoke that is released and that kids inhale is not benign,” Moreira said. Those who passively inhale the chemical haze are at increased risk of becoming smokers themselves. That’s a factor in the 2,200 minors who become new smokers in Colorado every year, Moreira believes.
“They are exposed to a substance that creates addiction,” she said. “Nicotine receptors are created when people are exposed to cigarette smoke. Secondhand smoke feeds those nicotine receptors. We want to do what we can to prevent creating future smokers.”
Helping hand, not a scolding finger
Moreira said her years of smoking were important to her actively supporting the ordinance. She understands how easy it is for people to light up when they get behind the wheel as a distraction from the chore and stress of driving. Making the car or truck “a boundary” for smokers offers those interested in quitting “a first place to practice,” she said.
“Like any skill you want to master, quitting smoking requires building the confidence to get through the day without a cigarette,” Moreira said.
The new ordinance faced opposition by an unlikely combination of members distrustful of government interference in personal liberties and others who felt it could be used to target minorities – who have higher smoking rates than whites. Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan had to cast the tie-breaking vote. Moreira acknowledged the concerns, but she maintains the focus should be on improving health and changing the “thoughts and concerns” that smokers have for their children and other minors riding with them.
“They may not be aware of the effect on the child, and this gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Can we talk about that?’ That individual may be one of the 77 percent of people who have tried to quit and failed because of a lack of confidence. But when we know better, we do better.”
As a former Girl Scout, Moreira is especially proud of Troop 60789 for their successful foray into the thorny arena of politics. Their story has been featured on the national Girl Scout website.
“I know I never did anything this important or powerful,” she said. “It’s very inspiring. These girls made health history.”