5 questions with Jeff Willett

11/14/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:19 AM

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.

Q. Can you talk a little about your previous work in New York?

A. I was a state employee for the health department so I had a lot of responsibilities with program administration, but in my role I was also connected to the policy-making process. … My official title was the director of the bureau of tobacco control.

Q. Do you have any personal connections with the tobacco prevention cause?

A. I have an aunt that I was very close to who died of lung cancer too young. I think most of us have been affected by someone who has died too early from a tobacco-related disease, lung cancer or heart disease, specifically, and that certainly was the case for me.

Q. What are your thoughts on e-cigarettes from a public health perspective?

A. There needs to be more regulation of these products, and we need to be able to understand their health impact. There are many forms of nicotine delivery that are regulated by federal and state government, all the way from nicotine patches for smoking cessation to cigarettes.

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.

Q. You recently co-wrote an article for the Journal of American Medical Association Psychiatry on tobacco use?

A. The article was really a call to action for the public health and behavioral health communities to take stronger action to reduce tobacco use among people with serious mental illness. For some background, in Kansas, one in five adults are smokers, but the rate of smoking for Kansans with mental illness is twice as high. Not only are smoking rates higher for people with mental illness, but they’re also more likely to be heavy smokers. …

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.

Q. What are some of your goals at the foundation?

A. Together, tobacco and obesity-related diseases cost Kansas over $2 billion a year in unnecessary health care costs, and that includes several hundred million to the Medicaid system. So if we can significantly reduce tobacco use, for instance, we can eliminate $200 million in Medicaid costs. And I see it as our role, not just my job but the foundation’s job to support Kansas in achieving that goal.

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