November 18, 2016
By Greg Peters
Christi Nance has turned the pain of watching her grandfather suffer and ultimately die from the ill effects of smoking into a passion for helping others in their struggles to resist using tobacco products.
"My memories of my grandfather are filled with oxygen tanks, coughing fits and a raspy voice," said Nance, who currently advocates for public health as the community health educator for the Jackson County Health Department in Kansas City, Missouri. "By the time I was 10, he had been hospitalized several times from side effects of smoking and toward the end of his life he was diagnosed with emphysema."
Nance, who received her Master of Public Health degree with a concentration in public health management in May from the University of Kansas, has played a key role in advocating for limitations on the availability of tobacco for youth, including the Tobacco 21|KC campaign - an effort that has led to numerous municipalities in the Kansas City metropolitan area adopting sales restrictions for people under 21.
The origins of advocacy
Because of her family's history, Nance became interested in tobacco issues at an early age. In high school, mentors guided her into working on tobacco-control issues in her home community of Maryville, Missouri. She was a member of Smokebusters, a high school group that educated younger classmates about smoking. She also took part in the Breathe Easy Maryville Coalition, which worked to pass a comprehensive smoke-free ordinance.
It was through her work with the Breathe Easy Maryville Coalition that Nance gained advocacy experience by speaking at city council meetings, collecting petition signatures and developing public service announcements for a Maryville radio station. Given her interest in health care issues, it was not surprising when Nance began her undergraduate career pursuing a pre-medicine degree at Northwest Missouri State University. But after working on the administrative side of health care, she switched to business management, and received her undergraduate degree in 2014.
Nance was looking for graduate programs in health administration when she came across the Master of Public Health Program at KU.
"As I looked into it more, I realized a career in public health would combine my passions for volunteering and improving the health of others," she said. "I can't imagine a career in anything else."
As a student at KU Medical Center, Nance was a whirlwind of activity. In addition to taking classes, she was a graduate research assistant in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, while also serving as training facilitator/program designer for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. She also interned at the Kansas Health Institute in Topeka, and took part in several student organizations As an undergraduate, she spoke in favor initiatives to raise the tobacco tax in Missouri, and as a graduate student, she helped train anti-tobacco advocates throughout the state. At the state level, Nance is a member of Tobacco Free Kansas and Tobacco Free Missouri coalitions, and was recently elected to the Tobacco Free Missouri board of directors. In fall 2015, she was named a fellow by a national organization, the Truth Initiative. Both Tobacco 21 and the Truth Initiative strive to reduce the use of tobacco among youth and young adults.
A resident of Kansas City, Kansas, during her KU Medical Center years, Nance testified before the Unified Government of Wyandotte County in support of raising the age limit for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21. She told commissioners how peer pressure on risky behaviors such as tobacco use was common throughout her high school and how easy it was to access tobacco as young as 14.
She also told commissioners how important it is to keep tobacco away from young people, since more than 90 percent of adults who smoke started the behavior before they reach 21. Tobacco 21 supporters say raising the age will reduce smoking overall, which is of particular interest in Wyandotte County where residents are often rank among the worst in the state in annual health outcomes. Nance says Wyandotte County has a smoking rate of 23 percent, which is higher than the Kansas average of 18 percent and the national total of 16 percent.
Officials in Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Missouri, voted in November 2015 to increase the tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21. So far, 19 cities across metropolitan Kansas City have joined in, including Bonner Springs, Overland Park, Prairie Village, Lenexa, Leawood and Olathe in Kansas, and Gladstone, Grandview, Independence, Lee's Summit and Liberty, among others in Missouri
"It's extremely rewarding to see the success that Tobacco 21 has had in the Kansas City area," Nance said. "It makes me proud to live in a community that values the importance of health among its youth."
Leading the way
As a result of her tireless efforts as a volunteer, her involvement both on campus and in the community, and her academic success, Nance was selected in May as the Dorothy Knoll Outstanding Student Leader Award winner for KU Medical Center. But she hasn't stopped there. In her new role as a health advocate for Jackson County, Nance continues to expound upon the difficult lessons she learned while watching her grandfather pass away after a life of smoking.
"My grandfather didn't know something he was addicted to was ultimately going to take his life," Nance said. "He started smoking when he was a teenager. Today we know the effects that tobacco products can cause, and we should be using this information to prevent youth from starting, so they don't end up the same way he did."