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Q&A with Katherine Ungar, executive director, Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation

Mar 11, 2019

Katherine Ungar is the executive director at the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation (PTAF). Ungar spoke with Interact for Health about ways the foundation is working to reduce tobacco use in the United States.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about PTAF and its goals?

Katherine Ungar: PTAF was established in 1996 and works across the United States to improve health by reducing the deadly toll of tobacco use. PTAF advocates for proven tobacco-control strategies to prevent and reduce tobacco and nicotine initiation among young people. Our primary focus is Tobacco 21, a policy that raises the minimum legal sales age of tobacco products to 21. We also support other proven tobacco-control initiatives such as flavor regulation.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned through your work?

Ungar: I've learned the sheer value of local change and the importance of empowering local communities to address the health needs of their constituents. I've also learned tobacco-control policies are not one-size-fits-all. In order to be effective, it's imperative for each measure to be tailored to the community it serves and to provide a mechanism of sustainability and robust enforcement.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments of PTAF are you most proud of?

Ungar: At PTAF, we are able to share our resources and learning to help people promote health in their own local communities. Our work has helped Tobacco 21 gain momentum at the local level and that's helped bring awareness to the issue of tobacco use among youth. We now have over 425 local communities that have adopted the Tobacco 21 policy, and the policy now covers more than 100 million people in the United States.

Interact for Health: Could you tell me a brief story that illustrates the effect of your work in the local community?

Ungar: Last summer, a councilmember in Hartford, Connecticut, reached out to PTAF to learn how the city could initiate the state's first Tobacco 21 campaign. It was clear there was both a need and an opportunity to introduce a Tobacco 21 ordinance as Hartford has an unusually high density of tobacco retailers, with more than 325 tobacco retailers and a population of just under 124,000 people. After a months-long campaign collaborating with national health organizations and local partners, including the Hartford health department, the city became the first in the state to pass a Tobacco 21 policy. Since then, three additional cities in the state have passed similar policies, and some 15 other Connecticut cities are considering their own Tobacco 21 campaigns.

Interact for Health: What about your work excites you most?

Ungar: I enjoy having the opportunity to connect with communities and see our work turned into policy action. As a small nonprofit, we have a very large reach and we're willing to assist, create and provide resources to any community no matter the location or size. And it's fulfilling to see engaged and invigorated community members. 

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