Anti-smoking initiative thrives, offering free cessation classes

Enrollment increasing, but future funds uncertain

Howard County

January 13, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Although future state funding is uncertain, Howard County's smoking-cessation program is growing, enrolling more people - including 20 workers at a private company in Columbia - to help curb the dangerous habit.

"The response has definitely increased," said Shanta Williams, director of tobacco control for the Howard County Health Department.

Howard's "Cadillac" program is among the most comprehensive in Maryland because it offers - free - virtually every stop-smoking aid known, and is open to anyone who lives or works in the county. County employees can use work time for the weekly classes over 10 to 12 weeks. The course offers nicotine patches in three strengths, Zyban medication, counseling, telephone support from peers, weekly meetings and a series of health tests.

In addition, Dr. Cynthia Lipsitz, county Health Department medical director, interviews each person and consults with their personal physician to ensure medication safety, she said.

"I'm not aware of any county that has the degree of involvement that we have," Lipsitz said.

The money to pay for the program and the medication is part of the $300,000 the county got in tobacco suit settlement money from the state this fiscal year, Williams said.

But the future of state funding is uncertain because of Maryland's $700 million budget shortfall, which has affected the state's ranking in the smoking-cessation field.

A study released this month by the American Lung Association listed Maryland as one of 38 states, plus the District of Columbia, earning an F for its level of funding tobacco prevention and control programs.

"Our ranking dropped dramatically from a couple of years ago," said Glenn Schneider, legislative chairman of Smoke Free Howard County. The progress made in Howard County is at risk if the governor and the legislature raid the tobacco prevention budget again, he said.

Addiction huge problem

The problem of nicotine addiction remains huge, according to the association, with about 440,000 people dying each year in the United States from tobacco-related diseases, 8.6 million Americans affected by a tobacco-related disease, and 6,000 people age 18 or younger smoking for the first time every day.

Quitting for good often takes numerous tries, Williams said, and a few people have taken the county course more than once. "Don't give up. It can take five to seven attempts" to quit for good, which shouldn't embarrass people, she said.

"If you fall off the wagon, come back. We try to tell them this is normal."

The three smoking-cessation classes starting this month have 64 people enrolled, with five more on a waiting list for the spring, Williams said. A total of 367 people have enrolled in the program since it began two years ago as a course for county workers, Williams said.

"Three classes per [seasonal] session keeps our hands pretty full," said Amy Skaggs, a county instructor. Word-of-mouth recommendations from former participants are attracting more residents to seek help, she said.

MICROS Systems Inc. in Columbia has 20 employees signed up - the first private company to ask the county to help employees.

"We're very excited about it," said Sheila Gamble, MICROS' vice president for human resources, who said the company felt that one way to fight rising health care costs is to prevent health problems among the 500 MICROS employees in Columbia. Smoking cessation and more exercise are the first two priorities, she said.

Lipsitz said the classes for MICROS represent an experiment for the county. If other companies are interested, the program could expand.

"Right now we're doing it free since we're learning from it," she said. A decision about whether to charge private companies for the program could come later. "This is something we have to explore."

Howard's program has achieved a 77 percent success rate after 10 weeks, according to Williams, and several smokers who quit after participating in the course last year are smoke-free, they said.

`I'm still not smoking'

"It was a year Dec. 1, [2003,] and I'm still not smoking. I feel fine," said Howard County library worker Cynthia Costley, 44, who said she used to have breathing problems.

Atholton High School math teacher Chris Fritz, 30, said he was "doing great," adding that the allure of smoking has faded over time.

"I don't have sinus problems like I used to," he said.

Fire department Battalion Chief Sean Kelly, 48, said, "I backslide every once in a while" by smoking an occasional cigarette, but added, "Luckily, I can control it. I'm doing OK."

Having an occasional smoke is risky, Williams said, and Fritz agreed.

"I've thought about how it might be nice to sit outside once in a while to smoke a cigar and watch the sun go down," Fritz said. "But I'm not about to risk it."

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