Julia Hesse has an ironic sense of humor about her role as a tobacco coordinator.
“I can’t get away from it,” she said. “It’s addicting.”
Hesse, 65, moved to Astoria from Colorado earlier this year and became the Clatsop County Tobacco Coordinator in March. Her arrival filled a seven-year vacancy. Health Promotion Specialist Steven Blakesley had assumed the position’s duties in the meantime. Hesse started before Gov. Kate Brown signed a law in August that, effective in 2018, will ban sales of tobacco products to consumers under 21 years old. A part-time employee with the county, Hesse will be the public face of potential tobacco prevention policies.
“The tobacco industry is a ruthless, predatory drug pusher. Countering their influence is really important to me,” Hesse said. “We have shifted from being health educators to advocating for strong policy.”
Hesse admits, though, that it won’t be easy.
Tobacco consumption is linked to 21 percent of all deaths in Clatsop County, and the total economic cost to the county is more than $27 million. More than 20 percent of 11th graders, pregnant women and adults in general smoke tobacco.
As a part-time employee with a $69,000 budget, Hesse will tangle with an industry that hauls in billions of dollars in revenue each year. The budget from the state is about one-third the amount recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and funding may be slashed by nearly 20 percent by the state in the near future, Hesse said.
“It’s a shame that we’re not spending money on this,” Hesse said. “Every state does it. I don’t really understand.”
In the few months since she started the job, Hesse has helped with local non-smoking policies at Clatsop Community College and the Northwest Oregon Housing Authority.
She will soon promote a tobacco retailer’s license in the county, which could cost retailers hundreds of dollars annually to renew. After finishing her initial research, Hesse plans to bring the issue to the county Board of Commissioners, which may vote to pass an ordinance establishing the license.
Hesse also hopes to see more of a non-smoking media campaign from the county. In the past couple of months, the tobacco program has helped organizations that have adopted non-smoking laws to purchase “no-smoking” signs.
Hesse has been a tobacco coordinator for two decades. A California native, she spent seven years working for Humboldt County before moving to rural Montezuma County in southwest Colorado for a 13-year stint. The conservative nature of the county made it harder to pass tobacco prevention laws, she said.
“Doing policy work will be a lot easier here than it was there,” Hesse said.
Hesse’s career in tobacco coordination came by accident.
She was raising three children while working as a medical assistant with Humboldt County Public Health. The department was looking for someone who could connect with teenagers to head their tobacco program.
“That’s my natural affinity,” Hesse said. “It aligns with what my values are.”
Hesse and her husband purchased a home in Astoria in early July. She hopes to continue her side business as a tarot card reader and also join Indivisible North Coast Oregon.
In her few months here, Hesse has noticed a similarity between Clatsop County and her previous home that she hopes will allow her to flourish in her new job.