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Veterans Health Administration

Want to Kick the Habit? VA Can Help

Three men in a discussion at a whiteboard

“When Veterans come to our tobacco cessation classes, we tell them that quitting smoking is the single most important thing they can do to improve their health and protect the health of their family members.” — Dr. Jameson Lontz, psychologist, VA Walla Walla

The bad news: About 440,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related illnesses.

The good news: Over three million Americans successfully quit smoking each year, and the Department of Veterans Affairs wants you to be one of them.

“VA Medical Centers across the country have tobacco cessation support programs for our Veterans,” said Patrick Smart, a Health Promotion Disease Prevention Program Manager at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash. “These programs will guide you through lessons that can be accessed online or in person, including information about preparing to quit, tips on your quit day, overcoming roadblocks, getting used to life as a tobacco-free person, and supportive strategies to help you remain abstinent.”

You’re Never Alone

Smart, who helps teach a tobacco cessation class one day each week at the medical center, said peer support is a major factor in quitting the tobacco habit.

“We had one Veteran in our class who was at 20 cigarettes a day,” he said. “One week later, he was down to two a day. Then, when he showed up for class the following week, he had gone back up to three. He was discouraged. He was really beating himself up over that. But we told him, ‘Look at where you are today compared to where you were…look at your progress!’ Then the other Vets in the class jumped in and gave him a lot of affirmation. You could see the guy just sitting there, letting it all sink in. Then he smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I am doing a good job, aren’t I?’

The World Health Organization estimates that at least 80% of all heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and more than 40% of cancers, are preventable if people stop smoking and get in shape.

“Your fellow Veterans who are also trying to quit can be a source of strength and motivation for you,” Smart said. “You’re all going through the same battle together.”

Veteran Kenneth Thrower entered Walla Walla’s tobacco cessation program in November of last year. He said peer support was a significant factor in helping him quit the habit. “I felt like I wasn’t alone,” he observed. “I was with other people who were trying to do the same thing I was. It was very helpful.”

Dr. Jameson Lontz, a psychologist and lead clinician for Walla Walla’s Tobacco Cessation Program, said Thrower experienced a number of relapses while trying to kick the habit, but stuck with the program.

“We call those ‘practice quits’,” Lontz said. “Kenneth had a lot of practice quits, but then he started making progress in leaps and bounds. Now he’s our poster child.”

“I went from a carton to three packs, then to one pack,” Thrower said. “Once I got down to one pack, I would just smoke half a cigarette. It was easier to manage once I got to one pack. Now I’m down to zero. I’m on the patch.”

“Let’s face it,” Lontz said, “when someone decides to give up smoking, they’ve made a decision to give up their favorite thing. It’s tough. It’s going to leave a big hole in their life, a hole that needs to be filled.”

So how did Thrower fill that hole in his life?

“I joined the YMCA!” the 46-year-old explained. “I’m really excited about it. I’m into health now. I replaced smoking with exercise. I turned my newfound energy into something productive. Smoking for me was a social experience, but now I can interact with people who aren’t smoking. They’re working out!”

We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

Lontz said that an analysis conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2004 revealed that 18 percent of deaths in the U.S. were due to tobacco, 17 percent to poor diet and physical inactivity, and three percent to alcohol consumption. Ten percent were due to other preventable causes.

“In all, these behaviors contribute to nearly 50 percent of all preventable deaths,” the psychologist said. “If people changed these unhealthy behaviors, some of these deaths could be postponed or avoided. So when Veterans come to our tobacco cessation classes, we tell them that quitting smoking is the single most important thing they can do to improve their health and protect the health of their family members. And while the emphasis is on tobacco cessation, we also strongly emphasize the importance of an overall healthy lifestyle.

“Human beings are amazing creatures who can solve most of their problems if they just have the education and the support,” Lontz added. “So that’s what we try to give them. I ask their permission, then provide the education. We don’t judge them. We just try to build them up. And we let them know we have tremendous confidence in them.”

Lontz likes to think of his seven-week tobacco cessation program, which currently has 40 participants, as a train that runs in a continuous circle around a city. “You can get off the train anytime, at any location you want,” he explained. “You can get back on the train anytime you want. You know the train will always be there.”

He explained that Walla Walla’s tobacco cessation program uses a combination of group sessions and individual counseling, as well as nicotine replacement medications for those who need them.

“And even when the Veteran isn’t ready to quit, we never give up on them,” Lontz said. “We always leave the door open by letting veterans know that when they’re ready to quit, we’ll be right here to help them.”

To learn more about VA’s Tobacco Cessation Program, visit your local VA Medical Center, Vet Center, or clinic.

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