To mark the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout — a day when smokers across the nation are encouraged to make a plan to quit — we talked with a smoking cessation expert at Northwestern University’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. Nurse Carol Southard runs a program for people who don’t have the tools to combat their tobacco addiction.
“Most of my clients feel guilty that they smoke. A majority of them think, why don’t we just stop?” said Southard. “Addiction is now worse than ever. There’s more nicotine in the products than ever before, there’s more chemicals in the product than ever before.”
“My tagline is: Learn how to quit, even if you don’t want to quit, even if you don’t think you can quit.”
She’s worked with smokers for 29 years, using a combination of medication, group and individual therapy depending on the needs of the smoker. Clients involved in the group therapy come to a once-weekly meeting for eight weeks, while others have a one-on-one session with Southard and work through her program on their own.
At first, Southard does the majority of the talking; she talks about how quitting benefits your body, how to avoid weight gain and what some of the cessation medication like Chantix can do. By the third session, you’re expected to have quit by the time you wake up that morning.
The remainder of the sessions focus on life without cigarettes. Unless they ask about the health problems with smoking, Southard said she doesn’t mention it. They know.
And besides, “if health risks were reason enough to stop, no one would be smoking now,” she said.
She’s available to her clients 24/7, she says, and she regularly follows up with people after they finish her program.
“It’s ongoing support and learning how to function without that cigarette. It’s taking a class to learn how to quit,” said Southard, adding that no matter how you do it, it takes about three months to quit for good. Once you’ve hit the three-month mark, chances are you’ll “stay quit,” she said.
After 363 groups, Southard said she is really happy with her results. At the end of the group, 78 percent of the participants haven’t had a cigarette in 30 days. Three months later, the number is 58 percent. One year later, it’s 51 percent.
Why is Southard happy with 51 percent?
“There is very little support for people who have quit in the real world,” said Southard. “As one of my clients said recently, when she told her family she quit, someone said ‘well, what took you so long?’ When other addicts get treatment, they are congratulated and encouraged.”
The Centers for Disease Control studied National Health Interview Survey data from 2001 to 2010 and found that 68.8 percent of current smokers wanted to quit; 52.4 percent of smokers had made an attempt to quit within the last year; but just 6.2 percent of them had successfully quit.
The 8-week program costs $250, but Southard fundraises to cover costs for people who can’t afford it. She asks that you write down what you can pay — even if it is just the cost of a single pack of cigarettes — and then she’ll find a way to cover your expenses.