When Group Health decided to kick tobacco’s butt

Joan DeClaire remembers how the whole organization went mano a mano with America’s biggest killer — and won.

image via Columbia Pictures

The 1980s. Remember ‘em? Things were definitely different back then. Men wore pastel t-shirts and baggy sports jackets with the sleeves scrunched up. Women put their hair in “scrunchies” and their hands in fingerless lace gloves. We called spinning on a carboard box “dancing.” There was a thing called parachute pants. Don’t ask.

There was something else we did that we’re not proud of: We smoked. We smoked in offices. We even smoked in the offices of Group Health. That can’t be right, can it?

Joan DeClaire, Group Health Research Institute Communications Director, was an editor at Group Health’s membership magazine then — and a “social smoker.” She lit up occasionally, but was not yet hooked. She remembers the old smoking culture of the 1980s. Sort of.

To jog her memory, she called an old friend, Neal Sofian. Sofian now directs member engagement at Premera Blue Cross, but he used to work at Group Health’s Center for Health Promotion, where he was instrumental in anti-tobacco work.

“Were we really allowed to smoke at our desks then?”she asked him. “Or was that just a bad dream?”

“It’s true,” Neal told her. Like the folks on Mad Men, Group Health staffers — including nurses and doctors — could smoke in some work areas, he said. And hospital patients could smoke in their rooms.

But it didn’t stay that way for long. Back in the early 1980s, Group Health began a journey that literally broke tobacco’s stronghold on America’s health.

Read how Group Health decided to take on the tobacco industry with pioneering research led by Ed Wagner, MD, MPH, who led the then-new Center for Health Studies (now Group Health Research Institute or GHRI), and the late Bill Beery, MPH, head of the Center for Health Promotion, funded in part by the National Cancer Institute.