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October, 2019

NCSSS Professor’s Work on Smoking Ban is Personal And Professional

By John Meehan

Associate professor Karlynn BrintzenhofeSzoc has spearheaded an American Cancer Society initiative to make all District of Columbia workplaces smoke-free.

Karlynn BrintzenhofeSzoc has made a career out of fighting cancer.

When she hasn’t been doing research and teaching about issues related to the topic, the associate professor in the National Catholic School of Social Service has offered and supervised counseling services for those with the illness and their families. She serves on the Board of Trustees of the South Atlantic Division of the American Cancer Society. In her latest effort, the medical social worker has been instrumental in moving forward a Washington, D.C., law that would prohibit indoor smoking in public places.

BrintzenhofeSzoc learned at a young age just how devastating the effects of cancer can be. When she was only 11 years old, BrintzenhofeSzoc’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. With her mother sick and her father working full time to support the couple’s nine children, the family had to depend on groups like the American Cancer Society to provide them with the support, transportation and information they required throughout their difficult ordeal.


BrintzenhofeSzoc was 13 when her mother died of breast cancer.

“It was at that point when I decided that I would work with people who were dying and their families,” says BrintzenhofeSzoc, who specializes in grief counseling for terminally ill patients and their families. “I came to the realization that since everyone died, there simply needed to be more help in preparing for and coping with it.”

After earning a B.A. in psychology from George Mason University, BrintzenhofeSzoc obtained her M.S.W. from Virginia Commonwealth University. During her tenure at VCU, BrintzenhofeSzoc began working with the American Cancer Society as a volunteer in their Richmond, Va., call center. Some years later, BrintzenhofeSzoc would go on to receive her D.S.W. from The Catholic University of America, where she published her dissertation on the relationship between spousal grief and the death of a cancer patient.

After spending the early part of her career as a social worker in the private sector helping patients and families affected by AIDS and cancer, BrintzenhofeSzoc concluded that she “was only touching a very small group of people, which is when I made the choice to come back into academe to teach others how to work with this population of terminally ill patients and their families.”


Teaching courses in research methods to CUA students ranging from the undergraduate to the doctoral level, BrintzenhofeSzoc aims to connect students’ research to what really happens in the clinical practice. “By using examples from my research, my own personal experiences and my passion as a medical social worker, I try to demonstrate just how important it is for social workers to be able to understand and address all aspects of a person’s life when dealing with a population such as cancer patients.”


To illustrate her point, BrintzenhofeSzoc cites a paper she wrote together with NCSSS Dean James Zabora in 2001 titled Psycho-Oncology. Their study concluded that in addition to exhibiting the most pronounced psychosocial distress of all cancer patient populations, the lung cancer population was the most stigmatized of all cancer groups, as “everyone automatically assumes that these people brought it upon themselves by smoking.”


“The truth is that 30 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked” says BrintzenhofeSzoc. Such is the case for those working in the food service industry – the line of employment with the highest incidence of lung cancer. In this environment, even a non-smoking employee “consumes the chemical equivalent of 30 cigarettes in an average shift… and that’s secondhand smoke, which is actually more dangerous than the filtered smoke inhaled by the smokers themselves.”


BrintzenhofeSzoc says that the decision to permit public smoking indoors affects “every person in every workplace in the city,” ranging from bars to office buildings to child care centers. “By smoking in public, you’re not only making a choice to hurt yourself, you’re also making that choice that hurts those around you.” BrintzenhofeSzoc calls this situation “unfair and unacceptable,” and she is drawing on her years of expertise in dealing with the cancer population to try to put an end to it.

A member of the Board of Trustees of the South Atlantic Division of the American Cancer Society since 2002, BrintzenhofeSzoc was a driving force behind the group’s proposed legislation in 2004 to ban indoor smoking from all public places in the District of Columbia. As the only member of the Board of Trustees who resided in the District, BrintzenhofeSzoc was asked by the American Cancer Society to spearhead the group’s 2004 legislative initiative for a smoke-free Washington. Other supporters of the campaign included action groups like Breathe Easy DC and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and  a committee under the supervision of DC councilmember David Catania.


After a two-year battle, the initiative was ultimately passed by a council vote of 11-1 in January 2006. An approval from both houses of Congress is all that is required for the smoking ban to become the District of Columbia’s newest law.


Bars and restaurants are likely to be the industries most immediately impacted by a District-wide indoor smoking ban, though not in the way many people might expect. BrintzenhofeSzoc cites New York, California and a number of major cities in the United States that have actually witnessed an increase in the overall revenue of bars and restaurants following a ban on indoor smoking. “Interior cleaning and ventilation costs are down, alcohol and food sales are up, and patrons are actually more likely to go out because they don’t have to worry about the smoke,” she says.

BrintzenhofeSzoc says that she intends to continue the fight against public smoking in other cities and states across the nation after the legislation receives final approval in Washington, D.C. “Thirteen states and a number of U.S. cities have passed it – but there are still hundreds of millions of people who are not allowed to work in a healthy environment who just don’t have a choice. There’s still a long way to go.”

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Last Revised 03-Mar-06 01:11 PM.