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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia Study Confirms a High Percentage of Smokers among Incarcerated Male Population

A research team at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has been working with the Pennsylvania correctional system on a two-part program to study cancer health outcomes and disparities in the incarcerated male population. The overall aim of the program is to improve cancer burden associated with tobacco use, especially lung cancer.

The study, led by Dr. Pamela Valera, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences, involved two phases. In Phase One, over 100 inmates completed a cancer health survey designed to gather demographic information and determine pre-incarceration medical history and attitude about healthcare services.  The survey emphasized lifestyle activities, especially tobacco, drug and alcohol usage. Findings to date show that the majority of inmates self-identified as current or previous smokers.

Phase Two was comprised of inviting those who participated in Phase One to partake in a cancer education program, called Cancer 101, consisting of ten modules that cover the general areas of cancer awareness, cancer identification and diagnosis, and cancer treatment, recovery, and survivorship. The response was so successful that two cohorts were formed. One cohort has completed the program and the second one is underway. Upon completion of the program, the students receive a certificate from Columbia..

“This is an exciting period for this medium correctional facility as the institution begins to develop strategies to reduce the cancer burden associated with cigarette smoking and tobacco use,” noted Dr. Valera.

Over the duration of the study, the facilitators identified a significant number of inmates who were dealing with cancer in some way or interested in learning about reducing their risk. Several inmates in the course were cancer survivors, and a large number of inmates have experienced cancer issues within their families. A majority of the smokers who participated in the cancer education program expressed interest and motivation to quit smoking cigarettes.

“We are pleased about the level of participation among inmates in this important study,” said Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. “The findings confirm a high percentage of smokers among the prison population. We hope this study and those that follow will help prevent tobacco-related cancers and improve outcomes, not only for those inside the walls of Pennsylvania state prisons, but for those on the outside as well.”

This portion of the study at the one facility concluded at the end of June, but the research team expects to collaborate with leadership on devising a program to effectively improve health through programming and ultimately reduce inmates’ risk factors for getting cancer.  In the fall, the team will continue its work at another facility.

The program was jointly sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health. Researchers included Mr. William McLaughlin, and Mr. Daniel Mackey.