When U-M public health prof Ken Warner was in college, he smoked so much that a Dartmouth classmate called him “Nicotine.” As he approaches retirement, Warner, sixty-nine, is world-renowned as an anti-smoking researcher and advocate.
It’s hard to imagine on today’s “smoke-free” campus, but when Warner was hired in 1972, “probably half of the faculty members were smoking in their offices,” he recalls. “I just felt this was hypocritical–if I am going to be in public health, how can I be smoking?”
He tried to quit three times, and failed. Finally, during a poker game in 1974, he deliberately smoked so much that he felt “terrible … I went home, threw out the ashtrays, made a New Year’s resolution out of it, and that time, it stuck.”
Warner and other public health researchers went on to identify public policy changes that helped millions of people to quit smoking, or never take it up in the first place. One of the simplest was to make cigarettes more expensive by taxing them more heavily.
In 1964, when Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a landmark report definitively linking smoking and lung cancer, the federal tax on cigarettes was just 8 cents a pack. Tobacco companies wielded so much political and economic power that it hadn’t been raised since 1951. In 1982 it was finally doubled, to 16 cents, but only temporarily, to raise revenue during a recession. It was supposed to revert to 8 cents after three years.
Shortly before the increase was set to expire, Warner testified before the U.S. Senate on the public health impact if the rollback went through. Presenting a just-published paper he’d cowritten, he warned them that if it did, almost half a million more kids and 1.5 million more adults would start or not quit smoking, and “hundreds of thousands of people would die” from tobacco-related illnesses.
“This helped turn the Senate and the whole field of public health around,” Warner recalls. Congress cancelled the rollback, and now the tax is about $1 a pack. While Warner stresses that “no one does that sort of thing by himself,” colleague David Mendez credits him as “the first person who saw taxation as a way to reduce smoking prevalence.”
This past September, Warner was honored at a major School of Public Health symposium, “Celebrating Progress in Population Health and Tobacco Control.” After Warner’s talk, a young woman asked whether taxing cigarettes unfairly punish the poor, who remain heavy smokers and spend more of their income on tobacco.
Warner agreed that fairness is “a real downside” to higher taxes. He suggested anti-smoking initiatives could be directed toward poorer populations, and spoke of his own nephew, struggling to find work, who could not quit. But while admitting there is “no easy answer,” he argued emphatically that “raising the price of cigarettes is the single most important thing you can do” to keep people from smoking.
“Ken’s research is critical in two respects,” says Matt Myers, the president of the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. First, “it helped find which policies to focus on.” Second, “it provided qualitative and quantitative data to media and public officials on why” smoking harms public health.
Not everyone cheered him on. He still has a copy of a 1981 letter that the late Jesse Helms, then senator of North Carolina, a key tobacco state, sent to the Department of Health and Human Services, demanding that his research funding be cut off. (It wasn’t.)
The World Bank was more appreciative. In the early 2000s, when the World Health Organization was negotiating a global treaty to limit smoking,Warner was asked to comment on many of the presentations on behalf of the World Bank. Time and again, he presented data from the bank’s book on smoking, Curbing the Epidemic, which drew extensively on his research. It “became the bible of the negotiations,” he recalls. “It said what works in tobacco control.”
The resulting Framework Convention on Tobacco Control “was the most rapidly and widely signed global treaty on any subject in the history of the world,” Warner says. “And it’s working!” Before it was concluded, “total cigarette sales globally were rising steadily,” he says. “Now they are declining.”
When Warner arrived, SPH taught only grad students at Michigan. In 2009, he launched its first course for undergrads.
He enjoys teaching undergrads, who he considers the “proverbial tabula rasa, the blank slate. They’re very bright and eager to learn. But they’re searching for what to do with their lives, and that often makes a course like my Introduction to Public Health very relevant.”
His course proved so popular that more followed, and next year, for the first time, the school will offer an undergraduate major in public health. “If [Warner’s] course had not been so successful, we wouldn’t have the major,” says Gary Harper, who directs the program.
Warner is now winding down his coursework and research while on a retirement furlough, and will formally leave the faculty next spring. “Want to feel old?” he asks. After forty-five years on the job, he’s taught the grandchildren of some of his first students.
Warner and his wife, Pat, have two grown children and three grandchildren of their own. They met when she took one of his courses as a master’s student, started dating after she graduated, and married in 1977. As he fought the nicotine wars, she rose through the U-M administration, eventually heading Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital.
Pat retired in 2012, and the couple recently moved to her hometown, Traverse City. How will he fill his time away from the tobacco battlefield? “My two recreational pleasures are golf and poker,” Warner says.
Though he stopped smoking after that 1974 game, Warner never stopped playing poker–he’s been part of the same game almost as long as he’s been on the faculty, and met many of his best Ann Arbor friends there.
In Traverse City, he says, “I play in very low-cost tournaments a couple times a week.” And “whenever I’m in Ann Arbor I try to schedule my stay to include a game.”