Jeff Willett has been interested in health for as long as he can remember.
“My father was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when he was 2 or 3 years old, so my whole life, I knew my father when he had a very serious debilitating disease,” he said.
“I got to see a full range of how that affected his life and how that affected our family, and so I think that was certainly the inspiration for me being focused on health issues.”
Now, Willett is vice president for programs at the Kansas Health Foundation, where he has a particular focus on obesity and tobacco-use prevention.
Previously, he worked in tobacco-use prevention for the state of New York, which has the highest cigarette sales tax of all states.
He is a native of Norfolk, Neb., which is perhaps best known as the hometown of Johnny Carson, he says.
He attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and graduate degrees in sociology, specifically the sociology of health.
“Tobacco control is a wonderful intersection of sociology and health,” he said. “There’s so many social aspects to tobacco use that are just really interesting to me. Tobacco use is concentrated more among Kansans with lower socioeconomic status, Kansans who are living with mental illness or substance use disorders. I knew that it was an area that I could make a difference and there was important work to be done.”
Willett started work at the Kansas Health Foundation in February 2012. He moved to Kansas from Albany, N.Y., with his wife and sons, who are 8 and 12 years old.
When he’s not chasing around with his kids, Willett says he enjoys sports, reading and movies.
E-cigarettes are in this strange place where they’re not regulated by the federal government. It’s difficult to really know what the full public health impact will be until they’re regulated and studied.
One-third of cigarettes smoked in Kansas are by those with mental illness, and studies show that people with mental illness die about 25 years younger than the general population and the years of life lost are not solely caused by the mental illness but primarily by smoking, a poor diet and lack of physical activity.