Conversation with Barbara Hoffmann

This month, we spoke with Barbara Hoffmann, Chair of the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Advocacy Council, about the importance of getting lung health on the political agenda ahead of the upcoming EU elections.

Please tell us a bit about your background.

I grew up in the not so clean and fresh air of the German Ruhr area, a former centre of coal mining and steel industry in Europe. I witnessed how friends and family members had trouble breathing due to asthma, and of course many men suffered from silicosis because of where they work. When I went to medical school in Aachen and later in Salt Lake City in the USA, I became interested in the lungs and how they work.

After medical school, I worked in a lung clinic in Oberhausen in the Ruhr area, taking care of patients with lung cancer, silicosis and COPD. I then decided to study epidemiology at the University of Bielefeld, Germany so that I could work on preventing these terrible diseases. I soon found that I wanted to research the health effects of air pollution. This took me to the University of Duisburg-Essen, Harvard University, and finally the Heinrich-Heine-University of Düsseldorf, where I hold a professorship in environmental epidemiology.

When I am not working, I try to spend my free time hiking and biking in the mountains with friends and family. Breathing clean and fresh mountain air is the inspiration of my life!

You are Chair of the ERS Advocacy Council. Can you explain a bit more about what the Council does to advocate for lung health?

The Advocacy Council is one of the three main pillars of ERS, next to science and education. Basically, we try to ensure that lung health is at the forefront of policymakers’ minds. Our job is to translate the latest research, which is often too complex to be understood by non-experts, to decision makers and explain to them how the findings impact the policies they are working on.

A recent example is our work on the clean air legislation in Europe, the so called Ambient Air Quality Directive. Research by the World Health Organization had impressively demonstrated that the poor air quality in Europe is causing serious harm. In multiple meetings, statements, and discussions, we advocated for cleaning up the air in Europe to provide the best possible air quality to all Europeans.

Similarly, we advocate for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, as respiratory patients are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of the ongoing climate crisis. Another important topic is the fight for a tobacco-free environment, trying to combat misinformation by industry and specifically protecting young people from nicotine. We also work to ensure that patients have access to all the resources they need – medication, other therapies, access to healthcare professionals, and that researchers can have a productive research environment in Europe.

There are several elections coming up this year, particularly in Europe. What will the ERS Advocacy Council be doing around this?

ERS are apolitical, but we stress the importance of political decisions for lung health. We will continue to point out the importance of a healthy environment, including clean air, climate-friendly and sustainable cities and policies, and actions for more effective tobacco control, to prevent or minimise disease. At the same time, we continue to point out the need for adequate resources for those who are already suffering from disease, including resources for research to alleviate suffering.

Why is it important that lung health is on the political agenda?

Lung health needs to be on the agenda, because otherwise its value tends to be underappreciated. Breathing seems something so natural that healthy people often forget how important it is for individual wellbeing, economic productivity and societal welfare. Lung health is inseparably connected to many political decisions and legislation. I already mentioned the examples of air quality, tobacco control, and climate legislation, but also on the local level – how do we plan and build our cities? How do we promote physical activity? How do we prevent obesity? We have also witnessed how a respiratory virus can impact our societies. It must be a top priority on the political agenda to prevent something like the COVID-19 pandemic happening again.

How do you think patients and the public could get involved with advocacy for lung health?

One important step is to join a group, such as ELF and its new ELF Youth Group. There are many activities like public lung function testing and all kinds of fundraising activities that are fun to participate in and make other people aware of the importance of lung health.

Another possibility is to get engaged in politics: speak up at townhall meetings, join a party, write letters to politicians and of course, vote. With the EU elections approaching in June this year, it is important for everyone who can to go and vote and continue pushing for lung health to be on the political agenda. These elections provide us with an important opportunity to get lung health on the political agenda. We can use our vote to ensure politicians are working to improve healthcare and address the issues that can lead to poor lung health.

More information

For information on how and when you can vote, visit this guide to how to vote in the European elections.

Our EPAP Live: Election Special event discussed the importance of patient advocacy and looked at how you can engage politicians. Watch it back and learn more about the upcoming elections and why your vote matters.