Community, Experts, News

Health promotion ‘most optimistic of health professions’

Dr Grace Wong has been an avid health promoter for many years and is a leading advocate for tobacco control in Aotearoa.

A part-time senior lecturer in Nursing, Associate of the Centre for Migrant and Refugee Research at AUT, Dr Wong is the founder and co-director of Smokefree Nurses Aotearoa.

The protection of the health of Asian New Zealanders plays a key role in her research. Haoura recently caught up with Dr Wong to discuss what it was like growing up as ‘fourth-generation Aotearoa-born Chinese’ in Christchurch, which at the time had a population of just 400 Chinese, her love for health promotion and what motivated her to get involved in the fight against smoking.

Dr Wong also shares about her work with migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker communities, as well as her involvement with an art-based initiative that aims to reduce racism, which was intensified around the globe and in NZ by Covid-19, against Chinese people.

HAUORA: Can you tell us a bit about what it was like growing up as a ‘fourth-generation Aotearoa-born Chinese’ and what it’s like to belong to a large extended family?

When I was little there were only 400 Chinese people living in Christchurch and not one was an extended family member. My Mum’s family came from Wellington, so we visited every Christmas. I remember roller skating up and down my Popo’s big old hallway. My Uncle Ray converted those skates into skateboards for me and my sister.  And then we whizzed down the drive and turned sharply on to the footpath, so we didn’t get hit by a car. My Popo made the best yum char long before there were lots of Chinese restaurants.

HAUORA:  What were your early career aspirations?

Being in a long line of oldest daughters I guess I was always bossy.
And I wanted to help people. I also wanted to know what to do if someone keeled over in front of  me. So, I became a nurse (and I try not to be bossy!).

HAUORA: You’ve been associated with HPF since the 1990s and we were delighted to welcome you to the HPF Board recently. What drew you to HPF and health promotion?

I love health promotion because it is the most optimistic of health professions. It draws out the best in individuals, families, communities and populations.
It  celebrates diversity. Everybody is welcome here.
That’s what drew me to health promotion and the HPF.

HAUORA: You have been dedicated to tobacco control over the years and have done a lot of research on smoking. What motivated you to enter this field?

DR WONG: In my culture, like others, we never forget a good turn. I will always be grateful to  Emeritus Professor Ruth Bonita, Dr Marewa Glover and Trish Fraser who set me on the tobacco control path. I love our country and its people. Tobacco control is about   equity. Everyone deserves a fair go.

HAUORA: Protecting the health of Asian New Zealanders has played a major part in your research. How big a problem is smoking among Asians here and is the smoke-free message getting through to them?  

DR WONG: I really appreciate this question because the illusion that Asian smoking rates are low   falls away as soon as the data is disaggregated by gender. Asian men smoke at nearly the same rate as the general population. Women’s rates are low. In Auckland we are  lucky to have Smokefree Asian Communities to help Asian smokers quit.

HAUORA: You were also the founder and co-director of Smokefree Nurses Aotearoa and use research to promote nurse action to achieve the Government’s Better Help for Smokers to Quit health target and the Smokefree 2025 goal. Do you see NZ as being on target to be smoke-free by 2025 and is enough being done to hit that target? How can we as health promoters help to achieve this goal?

DR WONG: Aotearoa is at risk of missing the Smokefree 2025 goal. I believe that we can serve people best by listening to them rather than buying into intense debates about what is right and what is wrong. Quitting smoking is incredibly hard. Our role is to advocate for and offer evidence-based options, practical support, and encouragement appropriate to peoples’ culture, circumstances and preferences.

HAUORA: Can you tell us about your work with migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker communities in this country and what sort of initiatives are in place to ensure their health and wellbeing, especially during Covid-19?

DR WONG: I was relieved to hear about the government meeting with leaders of ethnic communities recently. Many migrant, former refugee and asylum-seeker communities are fearful of Covid-19. They rely on sources they trust for information     and direction. Direct service delivery organisations like the Asian Network Incorporated, Asian Family Services and Shanthi Niwas Charitable Trust, listen to their communities, advocate for services for them, and support them mentally,  physically, socially and culturally.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has exacerbated racism against Chinese people around the world. You are currently a project team member on the Aotearoa Poster Competition, an art-based initiative which aims to reduce racism against Chinese people, which has also been heightened in Aotearoa, by Covid. When did this initiative start, how does it plan to achieve its goal and how is it is progressing?

 The Aotearoa Poster Competition 2000 is a positive pushback against an ugly    reaction to a frightening pandemic. It is a response to a marked increase in racism against Chinese people. The campaign aims to redirect hearts and minds away from blame and anger, and to encourage everyone to stand up to racism safely. The Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, just added the four winning posters to their collection. They are expressive, meaningful and beautiful.  

Banner photo: Photo by Stephanie Krist on Unsplash