Sarah Birckhead walks through Crump Memorial Park in Glen Allen on the kind of brisk sunny day where you stay bundled but really feel the Vitamin D at work. It’s a good winter day for a playground. As she explores the site, a little boy runs up to greet her—he likes making friends at the park, he says. They trade names and he shows off a small Hot Wheels ATV before racing off to play elsewhere.
Kids like this one are exactly why Sarah’s so grateful for Henrico Recreation and Parks’ new outdoor tobacco-free policy. The county adopted the policy in fall 2023 with the youth-led Y Street. The movement is the largest of its kind in Virginia, and it’s part of the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth. Through the Share the Air campaign, VFHY works with event planners, local governments, and other organizations to create tobacco and vapor-free outdoor spaces across the commonwealth.
Sarah is VDH’s Regional Coordinator for Tobacco Control throughout Central Virginia, and she says that Henrico’s decision to go tobacco and vapor-free in its parks and recreation spaces is worth celebrating: “tobacco-free parks are a best practice for tobacco prevention, while protecting everyone from secondhand smoke and aerosol. It also reduces tobacco litter!”
Tobacco prevention steps are especially necessary in Virginia. The state consistently receives failing grades from the American Lung Association when it comes to smoke free air and support for cessation—the decision to quit smoking or using tobacco products. And we’re one of the few states in the country that does not require retailers selling tobacco products to have a tobacco-specific license. CDC estimates that more than 10,000 Virginia deaths in 2021 were attributable to smoking, and that Virginia spent more than $3 billion in tobacco-related healthcare costs.
Sarah explains that her office “works on tobacco related policies that help individuals to quit using tobacco and nicotine products. 75% of Virginians who use tobacco products want to quit, so we also connect them to resources to support them in quitting for good.” In celebration of Henrico’s new policy, and in the spirit of the resolution season, here are some of Sarah’s best tips for quitting—and staying quit:
Start by asking for help.
Sarah knows that “nicotine is a really strong addiction. So we encourage people to get help before they pick a quit day.” She says that Virginia’s Quit Now services have expanded to include not only coaching but free patches or nicotine gum, group classes, and online resources like a personalized Quit Dashboard.
Understand the health benefits.
“There are both physical and mental health benefits to quitting, no matter how long you have used tobacco products or how much you use,” Sarah says. “Your body starts to heal as soon as you stop using tobacco products. The longer you stay quit, the more your body heals.” Staying away from smoking and tobacco use can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and COPD. And Sarah adds, “If you already have a chronic health condition, quitting can still benefit your health outcomes and will reduce others’ exposure to secondhand smoke.”
Support your employees and community members by adopting your own tobacco-free policies.
If you’re part of an organization or agency interested in your own tobacco-free policy, Sarah encourages you to reach out to VDH’s Tobacco Control Program at to firstname.lastname@example.org: “We can review your current policy and see if there are ways to strengthen it. And we provide free signage and support to help your workers and visitors go longer without tobacco products or to support them in quitting.”
Help youth in your life stay vape and smoke-free.
Sarah says that LiveVapeFreeVA.org is a great source for supporting youth in not using vapes or e-cigarettes—and helping them quit. “We have a downloadable discussion guide for anyone who wants to know how to start a conversation with a young person about vaping. And adults can connect with a coach for even more tips on having these conversations.”
Above all: be gentle with yourself and anyone trying to quit.
Sarah knows that the new year is a big moment for resolutions and that it can be discouraging when we miss a goal. “The most important thing is not to give up,” she says. If there is a slip up—get curious about it and learn from it. And keep trying. Quit Now Virginia’s Quit Coaches and quitlines are here to support you and I know you can do it!”