Passion, People & Public Health: Tobacco Use in Barcelona

Recently, the Global Health Portal spoke to Supriya Rastogi (Anthropology Major, WCAS 2014), who spent her summer in Barcelona researching the policies that influence the usage of tobacco in the Spanish community.

Tell us about your project.  What inspired your work?

IMG_2401Since I have first-hand witnessed cigarettes’ terrible effects on my uncle, I have always been vehement about tobacco use. I joined an anti-tobacco organization in high school, and even conducted health surveys with an NGO in India to understand the prevalence of tobacco amongst slum communities. This past summer, I wanted to look deeper into the issue and understand the policy that dictates the use of tobacco. I chose to conduct my field work in Spain because Spain is well known for its prominent smoking culture. In 2011, Spain passed a law that abolished the use of tobacco in all public spaces. I immediately questioned whether such a harsh law could hold up against cultural norms and be reflected in smoking practices and perspectives. Thus, my project revolved around interviewing and surveying university students to understand how public health policy affects the Spanish community.

How did your experience on the ground vary from your expectations?

Upon arriving in Spain, I was not sure what I was expecting. I remember thinking that if Spain was anything like America, it would probably be very hard to get students to take time out to do some survey without any incentive. Addtionally, I was scared about the language barrier, and whether or not students would be able to understand what I was saying and if I would be able to interact with them. It turned out that the Spanish university students were a lot friendlier than I thought! Hardly anyone declined when I asked them to complete the survey, and many of them continued talking to me even after finishing the survey of interview. My Spanish increasingly improved as time went on, and I was able to have fluid conversations with the students.

What was your most meaningful experience abroad, and what did it teach you?


My most meaningful experience abroad happened while I was surveying a group of students. Often, after students completed the surveys, I would engage in casual conversations with them ranging from the culture to tobacco practices. One of the most shocking moments happened after I was done interviewing one of the students, and we began just talking about how the tobacco policies in America compared to those in Spain. She thought it was so interesting that I was passionate about this cause, because although she knew smoking was not good for the body, she did not realize its severity. I instinctively began telling her some facts about tobacco, like how there are around 4,000 chemicals in cigarettes, including the things that make up nail polish remover, insecticides, and candle wax. I watched her jaw drop as she heard this. I asked her how much education she had received about drugs in general, and she said all she had was one day in elementary school where she learned that drugs were bad. Instantly, my mouth dropped as well, because like many American students, I had taken health courses almost every year of school. This disparity between the health educational systems amongst students in America and Spain made me realize the importance of education in inculcating teenagers with the facts about drug use. Despite the fact that this girl was a university student, the lack of education on health made her ignorant to the perils of tobacco.

What was your most challenging moment, and how did you cope?

IMG_2403One of the most challenging experiences I had was finding students. This problem arose towards the end of my project. In the beginning of the summer, there were a lot of students, and although they were all studying for their classes, they still took time to talk with me. However, as the summer continued into late July, the number of students kept on diminishing, and it was harder for me to find students who were free to talk. Since the universities were closing 1.5 weeks earlier than I was expecting, this gave me limited days to collect my data. To overcome this, I constantly went up to any university student I saw and tried to set a goal to get a certain number done. This kept me on track, and allowed me to collect a good amount of data at the end. In the remaining period of time I had between the universities’ closing and my departure, I contacted one of the University of Barcelona’s clinics, CRESIB, and I interned there. I got to help out with clinical appointments, and shared with the lab the public health knowledge I learned about tobacco. They even asked me to write a blog post about my experience for their website! I not only collected data, but I also built a connection with a clinic invested in Barcelona’s public health.

Did you encounter any cultural differences that required getting used to?
Although the universities in Barcelona and the universities in America have many things in common, there were cultural differences. The visibility of smoking on and off campus surprised me. One of the biggest things I noticed was the prevalence of on-campus smoking. Although there is no smoking allowed indoors, there was always a group of smokers outside. The most shocking part about this was that students would know which professors smoked too, because it was not a practice that people tried hiding. I remember walking past the University of Barcelona’s medical school, and I saw at least a dozen people in white coats smoking outside on the street. Another cultural difference was the food. I had never tried seafood before, and Barcelona being right near the water, seafood was Barcelona’s specialty. I slowly adapted to it, and now I have the taste for it!

Has your summer experience impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern?

This summer proved to me how meaningful abroad experiences are. It allowed me to step into another culture for a few weeks, and realize how many perspectives and solutions there can be to the same problem. Many students had opinions of their own in regards to the tobacco law, and it was very interesting getting a chance to hear them out. As an aspiring doctor, I hope to work intimately with public health policy to understand how legislation socially impacts the community.  This project was a great way to gain exposure to the topics I want to look more deeply into in the future. After getting my feet wet, I am now even more eager to research how public health policies best handle health dilemmas given a specific community.

Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location?

For any students who want to conduct research in unfamiliar locations, I hands-down tell them to go for it! We are lucky that Northwestern is able to financially support our ambitions to travel and understand different cultures, and we should reap the benefits of having such resources. There is always a problem waiting to be delved into, and a lesson that can be learned. The greater the difficulties, the greater the rewards. Keep an open mind and always be ready to explore!

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