Using communications and psychology to advance tobacco control

16-MiraMira Aghi
Advocacy Forum for Tobacco Control
16-flag India
11 Jul 2014

Please share with us an overview of your educational background:

I got my PhD in psychology, specializing in psychometrics from Loyola University, Chicago. In addition I was trained in communication research and production by Dr. Ed Palmer, the vice-president of research at Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), in New York City. Dr. Palmer took a personal interest in me at the behest of UNESCO, who approached him to prepare me to work in India at the Film and Television Institute in Pune. My assignment was to help the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to establish a National Prototype Center for film and TV program production in India.

After a two-year full time assignment with UNESCO as an international consultant in India, I opted to stay in India and continue working in the United Nations system as a freelance consultant. I have worked with UNICEF, WHO and UNFPA, many allied institutions like Danida, Care International, as well as with the Canadian agency, International Development Research Center (IDRC). I worked with IDRC for almost four years as their senior communications officer.

What is the main focus of your work?

All my work to date has involved designing behavioral interventions. However, I seem to have developed an inclination to work in health and development. I am especially proud to have had the opportunity to work with an international team (as the director of creative research) to produce two initiatives. The first was the Meena communications initiative, developed for UNICEF for eight South Asian countries. Meena was aimed at changing the behavior and attitude of communities in South Asian countries towards the gild child. The other initiative is known as Sara communications initiative, aimed at 22 eastern and southern African countries, with a focus mostly on the adolescent girl and the way she is treated and looked upon by the communities.

My entry into the field of tobacco control was also through a film which I helped produce at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. There, Dr. Prakash Gupta, a world renowned epidemiologist, and his team were researching tobacco habits and oral cancer. I was asked by Dr. Gupta and his team to lead an intervention into the tobacco habits of rural Indian population (in four states) with a focus to control pre-cancerous lesions and cancer. I have never since looked back and have continued to work in tobacco control.

What was the reason you got involved with this type of work?

Starting from my UNICEF days where I experienced firsthand the treatment that women and girls receive at the hands of the society, whether from the point of view of upbringing and the community in which she grows up or her treatment at the workplace. This has left a huge mark on me, instilling in me a commitment to expose her plight no matter in what area. This commitment drew me to look closely at the bidi industry where women and girls are exploited to no end. There are women who started rolling bidis at the age of 7 and 8 and they continued to do it all their lives as they were given in marriage to families who are bidi-rollers too.

Presently I keep busy supporting different NGOs and other organization in India and internationally and also keep on doing my own research with different disadvantaged groups. I define these groups as being “denied access to the tools needed for self-sufficiency”, tools which can help a person to make informed decisions, tools which can protect a person from damage to self, and tools which can help a person develop fully.

My methodology of Involving People Evolving Behavior is the dictum of all my work. I work in community service, due to a realization that I am able to understand people in disadvantaged communities. This segment of society offers fresh insight and debate in the context of behavior development and change. They do not mask their feelings and honestly tell you how things are.

My focus is on those who live and work on the lower rungs of society. Of course, I do not discriminate and work with students, housewives, public accountants, basic health workers, and teachers. I practice what I learn from my disadvantaged subjects. Believe it or not, my target population also includes the tobacco sellers (paan wallahs, as they are called in India).

What are some of the challenges you face in your work?

My challenge is to work without any funding, which is a barrier to working on a larger scale. Funding would enable me to contribute to the state-of-art in a bigger way. Since I work with the majority of the NGOs in the country and am also connected to many networks the world over, either by being a member or being on their boards, I am up-to-date on the global scenario in public health, NCD, and tobacco control.

What are some success stories as a result of your work?

I was on the board of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco (SRNT) for five years, representing Asia, Africa, Oceana and Latin America. I am on the board of the International Network of Women against Tobacco (INWAT), Human Rights and Tobacco Control Network (HRTCN), on the international advisory board of Treatobacco of SRNT. I am a member of Global Bridges, Association for the Treatment of Tobacco Use and Dependence (ATTUD), Advisory Board member of Advocacy Forum for Tobacco Control (AFTC, India), Action Council against Tobacco (ACT, India), Asian Mass Communication Center (AMIC, Singapore).

In 2005 I was awarded an Honorary Professorship in Behavioral Science from Universidad Del Salvador, Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2006. I am a Visiting Scientist in the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at Harvard School of Public Health. I have received all three international awards in tobacco control:

  • WHO Commemorative Certificate and Gold Medal for continued commitment in the field of health to the cause of a tobacco-free society, 1989. I was the first person in Asia to receive that award.
  • INWAT awarded me the Tribute for Outstanding Service to Women in 2009.
  • The Luther Terry Award in Community Service in Tobacco Control was bestowed on me in Singapore at 15 WCTOH, in 2012.

I was also honored as one of Twenty Women Achievers in Health Care by Modern Medicare magazine, 2009, (India)