Face of anti-smoking campaign dead at 31

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, November 15, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

Pick a date, any date. As likely as not, it will be National So-and-So Day. Today, as it happens, is the Great American Smokeout.

What, again? I know. You’d rather read anything but a ho-hum reminder to kick that filthy habit. So I won’t write one. Anyway, I have sad news.

A week ago, I got an e-mail that said: "I was searching information about a friend of mine, Pam Laffin, and found your article. I knew her through teaching her daughters in gymnastics. I felt I needed to pass on the information that Pam lost her battle."

Sandra MacMullin had e-mailed to tell me that a woman I never met, a 31-year-old single mother who lived near Boston, died the day before Halloween.

I spoke with Laffin by phone in early 1999, just before she came to Washington to meet state Attorney General Christine Gregoire and talk to students at Alderwood Middle School in Lynnwood. My notes from that interview end with Laffin’s prophetic words:

"The final message I’d like to leave is, just think about the smoking," she had said in a labored rasp. "Think if it’s worth losing everything you have for the smoking. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone."

What happened to Laffin was deadly emphysema, a lung transplant, and a kind of fame she wouldn’t have wished on anyone. She was featured in graphic anti-smoking commercials sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Those ads have aired in Washington through funding from the state’s 1998 settlement with major tobacco companies.

In one spot, Laffin’s daughter says tearfully: "All my friends say, ‘Oh, I want to be like my mom when I grow up.’ I can’t say that."

Another shows a long scar on Laffin’s back and a grim close-up of a damaged lung.

In a Nov. 3 obituary in the Boston Globe, Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Koh said of Laffin, "She could have dwelled on her pain, but she turned it into a powerful public health message."

When I talked with Laffin, she could hardly leave her Malden, Mass., apartment without a wheelchair. Her daughters Amanda and Krystell were just 10 and 12, yet she traveled the country, telling how she started smoking at age 10 because Olivia Newton-John had looked cool smoking in the movie "Grease."

Today I speak for a young mother now dead from smoking and for her motherless girls. Snuff out those cigarettes.

This year’s Smokeout comes with new help from the state. The Department of Health on Wednesday started a toll-free Tobacco Quit Line, 877-270-STOP. Callers will be offered free stop-smoking counseling by phone and referrals to cessation programs.

"It’s all by phone," said Ken Wassum, operations manager of tobacco cessation services with Group Health Cooperative. Wassum works with the state to provide the service, funded with the settlement dollars.

"We’ll assess how soon they’re thinking of quitting, provide up to 40 minutes of intervention conducted by trained cessation counselors, and send out quit-kit materials tailored to that person’s needs," he said.

Wassum was saddened by news of Laffin’s death. He praised her commercials and other don’t-smoke ads airing in Washington.

"They are designed to grab attention," he said. "They are real stuff, not made up. These are people who have health problems from tobacco use. It’s the No. 1 preventable cause of illness and death."

That message came too late for Pam Laffin. If you’re trying to quit today, Wassum would tell you it’s never too late.

"Most people try at least four times to quit before they’re successful," he said.

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