The Pulse: Lung Health Advocate Debra Kelley Takes On Big Tobacco – Again – Through Prop 52

Debra Kelley steered San Diego through major changes in social norms about smoking

Fresh out of graduate school 30 years ago, Debra Kelley began work in San Diego for the American Lung Association. Her first assignment? To help pass a statewide initiative that would establish smoking and no-smoking areas within restaurants. In this month’s Pulse podcast, Kelley shares the results of three decades of advocacy and the remarkable changes she has helped bring about in California, as citizens and governing bodies have come to understand the detriments of smoking and second hand smoke.


“We’ve come a long way, and it is so gratifying to be a part of dramatically changing social norms and saving so many lives,” Kelley says. Today, her work is more apt to be focused on expanding and enforcing smoke-free areas and insuring that emerging tobacco use such as vaping and hookah lounges are subject to the same restrictions as smoking. Auto emissions and climate change are also concerns, as is a major California ballot initiative in November to raise the tax on cigarettes by $2 a pack. The revenue from the proposed initiative will fund prevention programs and medical research related to tobacco-disease as well as help “offset the abysmal rates of reimbursement in California for the 1 in 3 Californians who are on Medi-Cal.”

The tobacco industry spent more than $100 million to defeat the last such initiative, Kelley says. To take on this foe, as well as others she’s faced as director of advocacy at the nonprofit, Kelley describes drawing on a “deep understanding of the political system,” much-in-demand grant writing skills, a comfort with budgets and spreadsheets, as well as ease in public speaking she developed over time.



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