Calls soar to hot lines helping smokers quit

The help centers are bracing for even more calls now that Congress has toughened tobacco regulation.

By , Staff writer

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    A cigarette is extinguished in a downtown Chicago plaza. This year, more people have shown interest in trying to quit smoking: The number of calls to state Quitlines has doubled in the January-to-May period when compared with the same time last year.
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When federal taxes on cigarettes rose 61 cents a pack in April, hot lines to help people quit reported heavy call volume. Now, with the passage of legislation that puts cigarettes under new regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, the groups are bracing for yet more calls.

They reason: The publicity surrounding new FDA regulation will remind some smokers of the hazards of cigarettes. Also, a more active FDA may find new ways to hammer the message about hazards home. And with cigarette companies limited in their marketing abilities, smokers may have fewer enticements. It could all add up to more people wanting to quit.

“The bill puts the spotlight on the addictiveness of cigarettes, and smokers will make the connection that if it's addictive, they need to make a call to seek treatment and services,” says Linda Bailey, president and CEO of the North American Quitline Consortium in Phoenix.

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So far this year, Quitlines in every state are ringing off the hook. According to the consortium, the number of calls to state Quitlines has doubled in the January-to-May period when compared with the same time last year. In fact, the 553,508 calls through May are almost equal to the total number of calls for all 2008, which registered some 591,659 calls.

The increase in calls started in January, which is normally a strong month as people make New Year’s resolutions to stop smoking. But in a usual year, the calls slow in February. Not this year. In February, they rose 20,000 as word began to circulate that Philip Morris, the world’s largest tobacco company, was planning to increase prices.

By March, many smokers knew that the government planned to add a tax of 61 cents a pack. Calls soared.

“With the economy where it is, combined with the price increases, calls to the Quitlines soared,” Ms. Bailey says.

Some tobacco companies, which tend to be excellent at marketing, have since put their cigarettes on “sale” with $1 discounts.

Now, Bailey is worried that even though calls are piling up, states will cut funding for Quitlines as they try to meet their budgets. Most Quitlines are funded either from tobacco tax revenue or from money the states receive from the 1998 tobacco-company master settlement.

“We are hopeful the Department of Health and Human Services will use some of its stimulus funding to help the state Quitlines,” Bailey says.

Moreover, Quitlines are expected to be part of the debate on reforming the national healthcare system, says Paul Billings, a vice president at the American Lung Association in Washington.

“There is lots of discussion about smoking cessation,” Mr. Billings says. “To have a healthier population, you have to address smoking.”

Part of the debate, he says, has to do with giving smokers multiple opportunities to access antismoking programs. “You just can’t give them one lifetime quit attempt,” he says. “Every smoker's attempt to quit is different.”

To get into such programs, smokers often need a referral from a Quitline.

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