Myra Wisotzky: Empowering people to engage in the health system

Myra Wisotzky: Empowering people to engage in the health system

Myra Wisotzky chose to work in public health “because it offered an opportunity to empower people to engage in the health system” and began to focus that energy on tobacco control when she was asked to lead a start-up venture, the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Valley in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“In 1989, there were not many people creating tobacco control coalitions in the US,” she says.  It was only one year after the US Surgeon General asserted that smoking was addictive, and the idea of involving not only health care, but also businesses, schools and community organisations in tobacco control was new. “At that time, the focus was on smoking cessation, not on policy initiatives that change societal norms.

With support from national and local foundations , she set out to build a broad-based community coalition that could plan and implement tobacco use prevention and control programmes, including policy and advocacy initiatives. Over time the coalition grew to involve more than 100 ‘smokefree’ stakeholders in the region it served

When the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a project to support comprehensive tobacco control programmes in state health departments, they hired Wisotzky to assist in developing it.

As Programme Consultant and Training Lead for the Office of Smoking and Health’s National Tobacco Control Program, Wisotzky’s responsibilities ranged from coordinating the Tobacco Prevention Training Institute and advising the US Food and Drug Administration on tobacco industry settlements to coordinating outreach to state health departments and writing a curriculum on “Basics of Tobacco Control” for a global audience. In 2002, she expanded her scope as Manager of the OSH’s Global Tobacco Control Program, collaborating with international and domestic partners to plan, develop, implement and evaluate global tobacco control programmes. 

Four years later, she had begun to feel it was time for something new, so when she heard about the Bloomberg Global Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use and the opportunity to work for The Union, she took it. “Everything I had done before lent itself to what was needed,” she says. 

Her first task was to assist with the very rapid start-up of the Bloomberg Initiative (BI) grants programme. The Union and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) were expected to award the first round of grants within a few months and turn around subsequent rounds with equal efficiency. 

Wisotzky’s combination of technical expertise and facilitation skills were ideal for supporting the new partners in resolving multiple challenges, which ranged from shaping criteria for scoring grant applications to defining shared values in the collaboration 

“Today our collaboration runs like a well-oiled machine, but we did a lot of ‘storming’ as we created our ‘norms’”, she recalls.

Since 2007 the BI grants programme, which is managed by The Union and CTFK, has awarded 732 grants worth USD 134 million. Under the grants programme the Union has provided grants to 132 governments and civil society organisations in 43 countries leading to remarkable progress, such as more than three billion people protected by smokefree laws.

In addition to awarding the grants, The Union also offer grantees extensive technical assistance, legal advice and training.  “One of the great strengths of the programme is The Union regional offices and staff,” she says. “They have the technical expertise, local knowledge and familiarity to provide grantees with hands-on guidance.”

With her long experience in tobacco control, Wisotzky has played a key role in developing BI’s technical training for grantees. Occasionally she teaches, but her primary role is to plan the programme and bring together the right people. “My philosophy has always been that these trainings don’t need outside experts. The people who are working on the grants in the countries have a tremendous amount to share with and learn from each other, and the focus should be on them. They are the stars.”

Through the grants and training programmes, countries around the world that formerly had only a handful of advocates now have fully functioning teams able to effectively influence and support the advancement of tobacco control.

Looking forward, Wisotzky is helping The Union address new challenges, such as the rising use of e-cigarettes, and define the strategic direction for tobacco control activities from 2016–2020.

“The changes since the days when tobacco control was about telling people that smoking is bad and they should stop are remarkable,” she says. “We’re about to start the tenth year of the grants programme, and it’s amazing to see what people have achieved and the impact it has had across the world.“