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Health Officials Push Importance Of Smoking Cessation Amid Pandemic

A "Smoke Free" sign in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Jim Levulis

Today is the annual Great American Smokeout, a day public health officials say smokers can set aside to quit. WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Erin Sinisgalli, the director of community health programs at St. Peter’s Health Partners, about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted smokers.Sinisgalli: You know, originally we were hearing, oh, gosh, people are anxious and they're stressed and they're smoking more, right? Because those are triggers for people wanting to smoke. But on the flip side, people at the beginning I think, had a tougher time getting cigarettes, because they didn't want to leave their house, things like that. But what we have actually found in our community in the Capital Region is that there's a lot more people who want to quit. Right now, it's concerning for them. Because if you have an underlying condition, if you're a smoker, you're at higher risk of serious complications if you were to get COVID. So people are worried about that. But they're also telling us, you know, what, I have time now I could focus on this, and I want to improve my health. So we've actually seen in our local Capital Region, and I would say, in New York state as a whole, we've seen more people interested in the quitting process.

Levulis: And I find that particularly interesting because a lot of what we've heard is that this pandemic, and the stress and the isolation that has come with it, and the lockdowns has impacted other sectors of health, mental health, depression, that sort of thing. But you're sort of seeing the opposite in terms of people's efforts to quit smoking, it actually has increased their efforts.

Yeah, I mean, that's how we're seeing things. Now. It'll be a while before we actually see the statistics and what the smoking rates are, you know. So I would say a lot of what we have are just more of our experiences, maybe more anecdotal, because we don't have those numbers. And you're going to run the gamut, you're certainly going to have people who are stressed and smoking more. And there are many health issues going on right now and in so many different areas. But that idea that there is a core group of people that do want to take the time to make their health better. And now they have another reason. So usually what we see with smokers is that they need that reason to push them over the edge. They don't want to smoke. Most people don't want to be addicted to cigarettes once they are, but they need that extra reason to make that step. And so sometimes I would say actually a lot of times, the people who come to us who want to quit smoking, it's because they've had a health scare. And what's going on right now is very scary. So even if they haven't had COVID yet, it's a very real chance of getting it and a really big concern about that.

And what is it about the impacts of smoking, and in that I'm speaking about traditional smoking cigarettes, but also vaping nowadays, that makes it so that the effects of an illness like COVID-19 are more severe for those who practice those?

Well, you think about how smoking and vaping as well affects the lungs. And this is a lung disease when you're talking about COVID. So you've got kind of a double whammy there. You don't have healthy lungs to begin with. So how are you fighting off an illness that for people who are experiencing serious symptoms, it's related to their breathing, you know, it's a type of pneumonia, and so they're having difficulty breathing. And if you're already ready a smoker, your lung capacity is reduced by at least, you know, on average, 30% or more with smokers. So now you've got this compound on top of the issues you already have with your lungs. So if you think about how scary it is to have difficulty breathing, and then to have an illness on top of that, that makes it even worse. I think that's the biggest concern people are having.

And what are some of the tips or resources available for people interested in quitting smoking and have any of those tips and/or resources had to have been adjusted because of the pandemic?

What we've always known is that the best way to quit smoking is to get support for it and to use medication. So there are numerous medications that people can use, like a nicotine patch and nicotine gum, that will help them reduce the physical cravings. And if they're using enough of it, those medications, there's seven different ones recommended. Some are over-the-counter summer prescription, if you're using enough of it, you shouldn't feel any physical cravings for a cigarette. But then you've got the psychological components. So all those triggers you have throughout the day. So if you were a person who smoked when you were on the phone, or when you were in the car, when you went out for a walk or when you had food or anything like that, you have those triggers throughout the day, you're still eating right, you're still driving a car, you're still going for a walk. And so you're bombarded with triggers throughout the day. So that's that psychological component. And that's where you need support from people who know exactly what to do to help you quit smoking. So we have really great resources in New York State. One is the New York State Smokers’ Quitline. And so the quit line is a number you can call. It's 1-866-NYQUITS. And then they have a website as well, which is nysmokefree.com. And if you call them they have experts who will answer the phone. They know everything you need to know about quitting smoking, you don't have to commit, you just need to talk to them. But if you do commit and you do want to quit, they'll send you free medication in the mail. Right now they have a special giveaway of a three month supply of nicotine gum. So the huge cost savings to get that for free in the mail. And then if you want more support, St. Peter's Health Partners is offering smoking cessation programs. So for years, actually, for almost 20 years now we've done these programs in the community. And so it's a group of people and a facilitator that come together, and you learn how to quit smoking, and you get to do it together. But because of the pandemic, we have had to move that to a virtual platform. So we can't have people in the same room together in any of our locations right now. But we started this virtual model where we do it via Zoom like everything else right now. We started that in April, and we've had hundreds of people take advantage of that. Over the last few months. It's been incredibly popular and very successful for people who want to quit with that type of support.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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