Joe was diagnosed with asthma at the age of 2; that didn’t stop him from starting to smoke at 16. Joe was diagnosed with emphysema in 1992; that didn’t make him quit. But after five attempts and with support of a cessation program, Joe finally kicked the habit.
Now more than two years smoke free, Joe is sharing his story with the Rhode Island Department of Health (HEALTH) in hopes that other smokers will follow suit.
“Find a program, figure out what you’re doing and figure out what you’re going to do when you get an urge,” he said.
Joe is from Cranston, but asked that his last name be withheld. His is just one of the personal stories featured in HEALTH’s new Tobacco Made Me cessation campaign.
Tobacco Made Me showcases the experiences of Rhode Islanders whose lives have been negatively impacted by tobacco use.
Nationwide, that is a lot of people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the effects of cigarette smoking account for an estimated 443,000 deaths annually – nearly one in every five deaths across the country. Worldwide, the number rises to more than 5 million deaths. More people die due to tobacco use each year than deaths from HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol abuse, motor vehicle injuries, suicides and murders – combined. Smokers are two to four times more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease or stroke, and are at increased risk for a variety of cancers.
“We know that when you can get a smoker to stop smoking that their health improves; there’s such a strong link between smoking and deadly and devastating diseases,” said Erin Coles Welsh, program manager for the Rhode Island Tobacco Control Program. “When smokers stop, within a short period of time, their health can return to normal levels. This program keeps people alive and healthy.”
Tobacco cessation is a major component to HEALTH programming, and is supported by state and federal monies. The CDC provided Rhode Island with a $1.1 million grant for tobacco control, and the state adds an additional $350,000. Funding for Tobacco Made Me comes from that overall tobacco control budget, and pays for a series of bus, radio and print advertisements that will run through the end of February at least.
Tobacco Made Me is modeled after the CDC’s national cessation campaign, which has increased traffic to state quit lines. In Rhode Island, HEALTH officials are already seeing that impact.
“Since this campaign has launched, callers to the quit line have tripled and visits to the website have also tripled. We see that there is a response on the part of smokers, hearing that other people have been through this,” Coles Welsh said.
The state offers a telephone quit line (1-800-QUIT-NOW), a website (QuitNowRI.com) and a Facebook page (Facebook.com/TobaccoMadeMe), which serve as the starting point for Rhode Islanders looking to quit. The free service connects smokers with a trained “quit coach” that provides individual assessments and customized plans to quit. Smokers can utilize telephone counseling, self-help materials, group or individual counseling and information sessions. Some are eligible for free nicotine replacement therapy.
“The Tobacco Made Me campaign is about Rhode Islanders helping each other to learn that today is a great day to quit smoking,” Coles Welsh said.
Through cessation programming, Joe has learned to distract himself when the urge to smoke hits. He might turn on the computer, fire up a movie on Netflix or go for a walk until the urge passes.
“At the beginning, it’s going to be one distraction on top of another, but it’ll calm down once you learn the things that distract you best,” he said.
For others, the support of even strangers has made the difference. Smokers have turned to the Facebook page as a forum to talk about their quitting success stories. The page features video interviews with campaign spokespeople.
So far, users are all ages, men and women, and people who started smoking for a variety of reasons.
“So far, they are all over the map. One individual started their freshman year of college … one individual started when they were very, very young because they saw their parents smoking,” said Erica Collins, the media and communications coordinator for the Tobacco Control Program.
The thing they have in common is that quitting has been a challenge.
“We’re hearing these smokers really felt that they had no options open to them. Smokers are up against more than $10 billion in tobacco marketing money spent each year to keep them hooked,” Coles Welsh said. “It’s really hard, but it’s not impossible.”
Collins adds that many Rhode Islanders have quit or started to quit after facing serious health problems, from cancer and emphysema to heart disease and problems sleeping.
She and her colleagues are grateful, though, that those longtime smokers are willing to share their stories to encourage others to quit.
“Most of the quitters we’ve spoken with are adamant that they want to do what they can to help others,” Collins said.