Doctors May Be Key to Helping Smokers Quit
> 5/1/2008 12:27:30 PM

Disputing the health risks posed by tobacco makes about as much sense as debating the color of the sky. Smoking causes emphysema, pneumonia, stroke and infertility and leads to cancers of the lungs, throat, and digestive system. Tobacco companies themselves no longer concoct extensive press campaigns to deny that fact (now they have anti-smoking ads that actually encourage the habit in teens). The argument that responsible adults have the right to destroy their bodies if they want to is fine, but it means little to the millions who've become addicted to the product and truly want to drop a horrible habit.

45 million Americans (that's more than 1 in 5 adults and nearly 1 in 4 adolescents) still smoke today, and at least 70% say they want to quit. Half of that majority try to quit each year, but less than 5% of them succeed. A majority of those who quit in the short-term relapse within 6 months to a year, and most successful quitters must try several times before laying the habit to rest. Do these low numbers prove the power of the tobacco addiction or do they imply that these smokers don't want to quit badly enough? And which product in the rapidly-growing smoking cessation market represents the best way to quit? New research suggests that the most effective anti-smoking aide may be the sage advice of a family doctor.

More than 80% of smokers visit the physician every year, quite a few of them because of tobacco-related health problems. Researchers at Oxford University gathered data from 35 years of health studies covering more than 30,000 smokers and noted differences between subject pools who reportedly received anti-smoking advice from their doctors and those who didn't. Numbers seem very low at first glance: DIY attempts to quit succeed between 2 and 3 percent of the time, and receiving professional advice only increased that number by 1 or 2 percentage points. But when we consider the number of individuals to whom these trends could apply, the picture changes. Doctors don't need to delve into extensive lectures - statistics showed no real difference in the efficiency of minimal and drawn-out efforts by these physicians. Programs that provide cessation planning, personal counseling and nicotine replacement medications see quit rates as high as 25-35%. If every doctor simply made a concerted effort to recommend abstinence to each smoking patient, the effects of this approach could be huge, leading nearly 1 million more smokers to quit each year. This relatively minor effort would also be extremely cost effective considering how many health care dollars could be saved if even a significant minority of American smokers kicked their habits. 

Quitting is no easy task, smokers need all the help they can get, and any number of factors can make them more likely to quit: hospital interventions can reinforce the fact that the number one threat to their health is a voluntary habit, commercials for smoking cessation products can remind them how many millions really do want to give it up, and witnessing the health effects that smoking has on others can remind them what will happen if they don't quit as soon as possible. As annoying as the practice can be, we need to remind our loved ones repeatedly that their addiction is killing them with alarming speed. Every smoker knows that he or she should quit for health reasons alone, not to speak of the unattractive nature of the habit. But sometimes the words of a professional provide that extra push that could make the difference. The simple question "are you smoking?" might very well be enough to get that ball rolling.

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