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A Healthcare Resource

Publish Date: 11/12/2004

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Health News Headlines

Up in Smoke


LONGMONT — Some smokers may regard the 27th annual Great American Smokeout as a day to dread, a day of institutionalized national nagging.

But the goal of the day is not to judge, shame or put down the 46 million American adults who light up.

Rather, the Smokeout — this year scheduled for Thursday — sends an important you-can-do-it message.

Smokers from all walks of life have caught this message and resolved to quit in ways ho-hum and highly creative.

Longmont ex-smoker Carl Helfrich, 73, exemplifies the latter category.

Instead of buying nicotine gum, patches or lozenges, he picked up a hat pin for 25 cents when he stopped smoking eight years ago.

He used the hat pin to poke holes in the filters of his last carton of cigarettes, he said. The holes diluted the smoke he inhaled enough for him to wean himself by the last pack in the carton.

“My wife told me, ‘If you quit, you can spend that money on Lotto tickets,’” Helfrich said, laughing.

Another Longmont ex-smoker, the Rev. Ralph Hardesty, 77, recalled watching a football game between Colorado and Nebraska one Saturday back in the mid-1970s.

Then a University of Colorado employee, he spent the afternoon smoking cigarettes and a pipe and packing chew in his mouth as the high-stakes game progressed.

“I smoked and chewed and spit in a bucket all afternoon long. I could have knocked down a bug at 20 feet,” he said.

But Hardesty lost track of how much nicotine he had dumped into his system. When he stood up from his comfy chair, he felt ill with shakes and sweats.

Under the duress of the overdose, he hauled his various tobacco stashes upstairs to the kitchen sink and turned on the disposal.

The American Cancer Society offers numerous tips to help smokers kick the habit, including brushing your teeth; keeping oral substitutes such as carrots, pickles, raisins and gum handy; and saying “no” out loud when struggling with a craving.

Another strategy calls for taking 10 deep breaths and lighting a match on the last one before slowly exhaling to blow out the match and putting it in an ashtray.

Besides giving smokers specific tips, the Smokeout has highlighted the deaths and chronic diseases associated with the habit.

Anti-smoking activism has caused many state and local governments to ban smoking in workplaces and restaurants, raise taxes on cigarettes and squelch cigarette advertising.

The city of Longmont instituted such a ban last January.

Starting in January 2005, Boulder County will have a similar ban in unincorporated areas, making the county 88 percent protected from secondhand smoke, according to Chuck Stout, Boulder County Public Health Department director.

Only Erie, Lafayette, Lyons and Nederland remain free of smoking bans, he said.

On the statewide front, Colorado voters this month approved Amendment 35 to increase taxes on tobacco products from 20 percent of the retail price to 40 percent, making the habit costlier than ever.

But the pocketbook hit is nothing compared with the health hit.

The ACS says smoking accounts for in one in three cancer deaths and one in five deaths from all causes.

The Smokeout provides this information along with the encouragement that it is never too late to quit or cut back and never too late to try.

•••

Ex-smoker: Melissa van der Poel

Age: 51

Occupation: Engineer

Home: Longmont

Kicked the habit: Dec. 31, 1999

Five minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999, Melissa van der Poel was running through a mental checklist while other people raised champagne flutes to the new millennium.

Did she have a stash of nicotine gum handy? What about her crochet hook, knitting needles and yarn?

It took all of these aids for van der Poel to break the “amazingly” difficult hand-to-mouth addiction she had reinforced for 28 years by smoking two and a half packs of cigarettes a day.

Her smoking saga started in high school, she said, when young women in her small class splintered into two groups: cheerleaders and hoods.

Though not quite a hood, she also did not fit the cheerleader mold. But by smoking cigarettes, she found a quick and easy ticket in with the hoods.

Little did she know then that sneaking cigarettes as a high school sophomore to “be cool” would soon become a fixture of adult life.

“Your whole day is built around smoking,” she said. “This is the only thing that would make me get out of bed in the winter in a blizzard — to find an open gas station when I was out of cigarettes.”

The physical addiction proved powerful.

“It’s that feeling that you’ve got to have a cigarette now,” van der Poel explained.

Yet so many other part-and-parcel aspects of the habit kept her hooked.

While working for nonprofit organizations in Nepal and Africa, she considered cigarettes a great “social leveler.”

Smoking at the back door, she mixed and mingled with cab drivers, van der Poel explained.

Eventually, though, the preponderance of health-risk evidence and her need to live a healthier life made her ready that night almost five years ago.

“And you have to be ready. Don’t let somebody nag you into it,” she advised. “You won’t be successful.”

•••

Ex-smoker: Janet Elrod

Age: 61

Occupation: Retired special education supervisor

Home: Longmont

Kicked the habit: 1993

When Janet Elrod smoked her first cigarette at age 16, dancing stick figures advertised Lucky Strikes and a singing woman praised Kents, she said.

It was the late 1950s, and ad campaigns seemed like innocent pitches free of sex appeal and vice.

Smoking in those days was much more a part of the culture, Elrod explained.

“During the lunch hour during high school, you’d go to the Coke shop and have a hamburger, a coke and a smoke,” Elrod said of her upstate New York adolescence.

She first quit in 1965 after bearing her second child, but not for the right reasons.

Her doctor had ordered the “skinny” new mother to gain weight. She figured snuffing her cigarette habit would do the trick because smoking can suppress the appetite.

After six months of smoke-free living, she had gained no weight and lit up again.

All other attempts proved unsuccessful until 1993, when her doctor refused to perform an operation unless she quit two weeks before the surgery.

“I just got up in the morning two weeks before then and I was done,” she said. “I had to.”

After the operation, she took it day by day, nibbling on black licorice when the cravings hit.

Besides writing off bars for a while, she got busy right after eating dinner at home.

“I had to learn as soon as we were finished to get up and wash those dishes, not just sit there (as I did) when I used to smoke,” she said.

•••

Ex-smoker: Patrick Shea

Age: 57

Occupation: Network technician

Home: Mead

Kicked the habit: June 8, 1970

Some of Patrick Shea’s earliest memories as a boy growing up in New York City center around trips to the cigarette vending machine with his father.

A pack of Camels cost 22 cents then. When Shea plunked a quarter in for his dad, the vending machine dispensed the pack of cigarettes and three cents in change.

But Shea’s decision to smoke at age 14 had more to do with peer pressure than parent modeling, he said.

Despite feeling nauseated and dizzy during those first drags, he “muddled through” the negative physical responses to smoke like the cool older kids, he explained.

Shea now considers the ill feelings red flags at the gates of a gripping addiction that took him nearly 10 years to control.

The anything-goes environment at the time didn’t help, he added.

From the real people in his life — his father and his buddies — to TV game show contestants, lighting up was a way of life for many.

Then one summer day while stationed along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the 23-year-old U.S. Army soldier experienced a life-changing epiphany.

Shea was storming up a hill with his comrades during a war-game exercise when he collapsed with his rifle and full pack.

“I couldn’t breathe,” he recalled. “I just couldn’t get any air. That’s when I thought, ‘This is about enough.’”

Once back at the barracks, he began devising a plan, which he formalized by drawing a square around the “8” on the June page of that year’s Playboy Bunny calendar.

Then he wrote “Stop smoking” beside the number.

He keeps that calendar from 1970 as a memento to the milestone.

“It gets a little easier every day — a little bit, just a very little bit easier,” Shea added. “But if you quit, remember that first cigarette will get you every time. It’s something you’ve got to keep after.”

•••

Ex-smoker: Chuck Stout

Age: 61

Occupation: Director, Boulder County Public Health

Home: Louisville

Kicked the habit: 1981

Chuck Stout was fighting the good fight against his cigarette addiction when a job offer came in from a San Rafael heroin addiction treatment center.

There, the young public health director found himself enveloped in smoke while leading the group therapy circles.

Heroin addicts, he explained, are notorious for chain-smoking and gulping coffee when they go into recovery.

But the smoky atmosphere set him back in the classic “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” scenario.

“It took me 15 times to quit. It’s the hardest addiction there is,” he said. “The joke was, really, that you didn’t quit smoking. You quit buying.”

In college and later in Ghana with the Peace Corps, he still managed to kick the habit for months at a time.

The problem was that “everyone” smoked and it eventually proved too tempting to say, “No, thank you,” he explained.

Even in an underdeveloped nation like Ghana, where cigarettes were too expensive to buy in packs, men would customarily drink palm wine together and send a boy to buy a single cigarette for each.

“People who didn’t smoke would smoke one or two,” he explained. “We saw it back then as a stress reliever and something to share.”

Deep down, everyone knew it was not a healthful habit, Stout continued.

That was especially true after 1964, he said, when the surgeon general issued the first warning about the health hazards of smoking.

But addiction has a funny way of feeding denial.

“We used to joke that nobody over the age of reason knew that smoking was bad for you,” Stout said.

Ultimately, it took the birth of his first child in 1981 before Stout finally kicked the daily habit — even though he still sometimes “waxes nostalgic” for it.

By then, the ill effects of secondhand smoke had become clear and the public had begun correlating smoking with heart disease and stroke, not just lung cancer.

More recently, smoke-free laws have also given easily tempted ex-smokers some reprieve.

“With a lot of health issues, I’ll say, ‘I need you to know that it’s disgusting, but not dangerous — like not wearing hairnets (in a restaurant),’” said Stout, who started smoking at age 15. “But tobacco is one of those things that’s both.”

•••

Ex-smoker: Gale Hodgkin

Age: 81

Occupation: Retired engineer

Home: Longmont

Kicked the habit: Jan. 1, 1963

Picturing himself as a Nebraska country kid smoking corn silks in the early 1930s makes Gale Hodgkin chuckle now.

But the octogenarian knows how that led to the real stuff — tobacco — when he was just 11 years old.

In no time, his addiction had him scavenging butts off the sidewalk to consolidate and reroll, he said.

Other times, when he had change in his pocket, he would spend 10 cents on a pack of Sensation brand cigarettes.

On some level, he suspected the habit was dangerous.

Every time his Grandpa Hodgkin drank coffee, he had to squeeze his left cheek in to close the gap where mouth cancer, caused by chewing tobacco, had necessitated surgery, he recalled.

“And other people were coughing a lot and seemed to have more colds,” Hodgkin continued. “I didn’t think it took a genius to connect the two.”

So, although he had tried quitting before, it wasn’t until he made a pact with his wife, who also wanted to stop smoking, that he was able to quit.

“We decided that we would go to that New Year’s Eve party (in 1962) and just be our normal selves. But we would wake up New Year’s Day knowing that we would no longer smoke,” he said.

It worked.

“The fact that she was watching me as close as I was watching her helped,” he said, laughing.

Coming home to a smoke-free house also helped in the first few years, he said. And his three small children got him through the inevitable stretches of feeling cranky.

“They would say, ‘How come you’re not smiling today, Dad?’” he said.

That both cheered him up and cheered him on, Hodgkin explained.

But like so many ex-smokers say, the success ultimately came from within.

“You have to fight just as hard for it as you’ve ever fought for anything,” Hodgkin said. “In my mind you are, in fact, fighting for your life. That may be why I’ve lived so long.”

Health benefits

• 20 minutes after quitting: Your blood pressure drops to a level close to that before the last cigarette. The temperature of your hands and feet increases to normal.

• 8 hours after quitting: The carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal.

• 24 hours after quitting: Your chance of a heart attack decreases.

• Two weeks to three months after quitting: Your circulation improves and your lung function increases up to 30 percent.

• One to nine months after quitting: Coughing, sinus congestion, fatigue and shortness of breath decrease; cilia (tiny hairlike structures that move mucus out of the lungs) regain normal function in the lungs, increasing the ability to handle mucus, clean the lungs and reduce infection.

• One year after quitting: The excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker’s.

• Five years after quitting: Your stroke risk is reduced to that of a nonsmoker five-15 years after quitting.

• 10 years after quitting: The lung cancer death rate is about half that of a continuing smoker’s. The risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney and pancreas decreases.

• 15 years after quitting: The risk of coronary heart disease is that of a nonsmoker’s.

Source: American Cancer Society

Mental readiness

• Step 1: Think about why you want to quit and write those reasons down. Refer to this list when you are feeling a craving for tobacco.

• Step 2: Talk to your primary-care provider about the addictive nature of nicotine and if a drug therapy is right for you.

• Step 3: Call the Colorado Quitline (800-639-QUIT) to speak to a trained counselor, receive information on drug therapies and request self-help quitting materials. Or log on to the Colorado QuitNet (www.co.quitnet.com) for expert advice, quitting tips and peer support.

• Step 4: Call the Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership (TEPP) at 303-413-7567 to obtain a free Quit Kit and information on Boulder County Quit Smoking Classes.

• Step 5: Tell your friends, family members and co-workers about your desire to quit smoking on the Great American Smokeout.

•Step 6: Quit smoking Thursday. Nov. 18.

Source: Boulder County Public Health

For more information

• Visit Colorado Quitline at www.co.quitnet.com or call 303-639-QUIT.

• Drop in on a Nicotine Anonymous meeting in Longmont or Boulder, 303-582-3153.

• Get a free quit-smoking consultation at Tobacco Education and Prevention Partners of Boulder County.

 

 

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