Poverty and addiction to tobacco. Either circumstance by itself is difficult to live with. But unfortunately, as Dr. Jasjit S. Ahluwalia learned from his experience working in a city hospital, these two challenges are often linked. One perpetuates the other—the person who struggles financially may take comfort in the perceived stress relief of cigarettes—whereas the cigarettes not only cost the person money, but also health. Sickness and disease brought on by the suppressed immune system courtesy of the cigarettes send the person to the doctor more often, thereby incurring medical bills, prescription costs and further taxing the smoker’s wallet. The cycle is vicious, and when paired with lack of knowledge of healthy eating and exercise habits, can lead to cancer, heart disease and other catastrophic health problems.
After finishing a fellowship at Harvard in 1992, Dr. Ahluwalia moved to Atlanta to join the staff at Emory University. He also began working at Grady Memorial Hospital, a large, public urban facility located squarely in the downtown area. It was there that he recognized the plight of the city’s inner-city poor. “I was seeing patients and I was amazed at how much of what they were being admitted for could have been prevented,” he said. “Their diets were poor; they were smoking and many had alcohol problems. They’d come in and we’d do a tune-up, and then they’d come back a month later.”
I was seeing patients and I was amazed at how much of what they were being admitted for could have been prevented.
Dr. Ahluwalia regularly saw dozens of the same patients who were overweight, had diabetes, addicted to smoking and had limited physical activity. The risk factors for disease and chronic illness were stacked against these folks, and he knew something had to change. He’d been interested in examining tobacco addiction as a resident and a fellow, but only found real reason to make it a priority when he saw the extra burden it placed on Atlanta’s urban poor and lower middle class. That’s when he discovered the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
In 1996, Dr. Ahluwalia was awarded a research grant and then another grant in 1997. This funding helped him study the smoking patterns of the city’s impoverished. He also found something surprising. Despite the myth, poor people actually wanted to quit – they just needed help do it successfully. He and his team produced plenty of data and published their findings. In turn, Dr. Ahluwalia began receiving higher-level funding, including his first R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health as an Assistant Professor – quite an accomplishment in the research community. He began working on behavioral research projects that study the choices we make every day and has not looked back.
Dr. Ahluwalia has remained active in cancer prevention research through a variety of prestigious appointments to academic medical programs throughout his career. He currently serves as a Professor and Deputy Director of the newly funded $13 million Center for Addiction and Disease Risk Exacerbation (CADRE), a National Institute of Health (NIH) funded Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), at Brown University where he is also a tenured Professor in the School of Public Health. He also serves as the Associate Director for Cancer Prevention and Control for the newly named Legoretta Cancer Center at Brown University. In addition to his primary research on nicotine addiction and smoking cessation, he is actively involved in research in the areas of health disparities, racism and minority health. Dr. Ahluwalia served as the inaugural chair of a charted NIH study section titled, “Health Disparities and Equity Promotion,” and in 2014, completed a 3-year term on the federal government’s NIH/Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) National Advisory Council on Minority Health and Health Disparities, for which he served as chair during the last year of his term. He just completed a 3-year term on the U.S. Government’s Interagency Committee on Tobacco and Health. In addition, Dr. Ahluwalia is engaged in global efforts with research projects in Mumbai and New Delhi, India.
Dr. Ahluwalia hasn’t let his busy schedule stop him from taking part in the training and career development of up-and-coming scientists. In addition to his teaching responsibilities on both the graduate and undergraduate level, he has mentored countless numbers of early career researchers and was recognized for his excellence in mentoring by the Society of Behavioral Medicine with their inaugural Distinguished Research Mentor Award in 2001. He has directly mentored three Prevent Cancer Foundation Fellows—Delwyn Catley (1999), Kimberly Engleman (2000) and Shawn Jeffries (2001)—early-career researchers who were funded by the Prevent Cancer Foundation, as he himself was mentored by an early grantee of the Foundation. “Foundations like the Prevent Cancer Foundation are critical because you need funding and support at the start of your career,” he said.