Vermont Quits: Part One - Who still smokes and why it’s so hard to quit

01/12/09 5:30PM By Neal Charnoff
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(Charnoff) It's been ten years since a landmark legal settlement between the tobacco industry and a number of states, including Vermont. Money from the settlement led to a new push to reduce smoking in the state.

All this week, we're examining the issue of smoking. How is Vermont faring in helping people kick the habit? And just how is the settlement money being used?

Click here to share your thoughts about smoking and read what others have said

Today, we look at who's still smoking, and why it's so hard to quit.

(At store) Can we have "Camel reds, please?"

(Charnoff) It's a busy morning at M&M Beverage in Montpelier, where some shoppers are paying over five dollars for a pack of cigarettes. Merina Martinez, who's behind the register, also happens to be a smoker.

(Martinez) "I've been smoking now for about 14 years. Times are a little tough right now, but I've been thinking about quitting cold turkey..."

(Charnoff) Martinez isn't alone. More than one in 6 adults - 87,000 Vermonters - still smoke. While many say they want to quit, ex-smokers will tell you it's the hardest thing they've ever done.

(Lynn) "It is the most addicting substance that there is, really..."

(Charnoff) Sherri Lynn is Tobacco Control Chief for the Vermont Department of Health. She says nicotine is as addictive as heroin, alcohol and cocaine.

Vermont has tackled the problem with money and new laws. The state has established a Quit Network, and prevention programs. It's raised taxes on cigarettes, and banned smoking in many public places. And there've been some results.

In the last ten years, the smoking rate among adults has gone down from 22% to 18%. And the number of youths who smoke has been cut in half, to 16%.

That's the good news.

There's also bad news. For one, there's been no decline in youth smoking over the past few years.

And some of the highest smoking rates are among people with low-incomes, and those with mental health and substance-abuse problems.

But even Barack Obama has struggled with smoking. Here's Tom Brokaw interviewing the President-elect in December on Meet the Press.

(Brokaw) "Have you stopped smoking?"
(Obama) "I have, but what I said was that you know there are times when I've fallen off the wagon. What I would say is that I have done a terrific job, under the circumstances, of making myself much healthier, and I think that you will not see any violations of these rules in the White House."

(Charnoff) The president-elect has said he's used nicotine gum to help kick the habit.

Dr. John Hughes, a University of Vermont researcher, says Obama is setting a good example for smokers who want to quit.

(Hughes) "No one's gonna say that Barack Obama is weak-willed, doesn't have any character, and just doesn't have his act together. And he was at least smart enough to say, look I'm not gonna be able to do this on my own. And if somebody like him has to use medicines, I don't think anybody should be ashamed of using medications."

And in times of stress, and economic uncertainty, smokers who have quit... can fall back to old ways. Merina Martinez, who quit smoking for 3 months, can attest to that.

(Martinez) To tell you the truth I don't know why I went back, I think I was just... I was depressed so, it took me right back to it, you know being depressed doesn't help the situation.

(Charnoff) The troubled economy could make the job of helping people quit more difficult. In Montpelier, with the state budget out of balance, the legislature has been taking money from the tobacco settlement's trust fund. Advocates say it could put the future of the state's tobacco program at risk. And they say that could be short-sighted, because with tobacco use, come other costs.

Tina Zuk is with the non-profit Coalition For a Tobacco Free Vermont.

(Zuk) Vermont currently spends $233 million on health care costs directly attributed to smoking, and $72 million of that is Medicaid costs. That's taxpayer's money, so even you as a non-smoker would have to pay for that.

(Charnoff) UVM's Dr. John Hughes has spent 25 years researching smoking cessation, and figuring out what works best to help people quit.

Hughes says smokers need to understand it can take several attempts to be successful.

(Hughes) "Most people who try to quit smoking don't even make it three days. So part of the problem is getting people to keep trying."

(Sounds from store)

(Charnoff) Back at M and M Beverage Center, store clerk Merina Martinez says it's not easy.

(Martinez) " I have customers that come in here actually that come in here and tell me that I'm too young, or I'm too pretty, maybe I should give up smoking, pretty much, yeah. I have some people that care about me somewhat and say that they want me to quit smoking, but I'm not ready... I'm like, I'm not ready."

(Charnoff) When she is ready, there will be resources available to help Martinez in the effort to kick the habit, for good.

Tomorrow in our series, we'll hear about some of the latest strategies in smoking cessation programs.

Photo: Merina Martinez behind the register at M&M Beverage

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Related Links

Vermont Quits main page Vermont Department of Health Tobacco control website Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont Vermont Quit Network
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