New Benefit for Employees Trying to Quit Smoking

La Monica Everett-Haynes
Lo Que Pasa
University Communications

State employees, including those at the UA, can now receive free quit-tobacco medications.

Arizona residents also can call ASHLine, which assigns “coaches” to people trying to quit.

Even after a smoker decides to kick the habit, quitting can be hard. Smoking often becomes part of a lifestyle, and sometimes is a reflex response to boredom.

But thanks to a new benefit for state employees, quitting just got a little easier.

Under benefit changes approved in May, state employees can now receive free smoking cessation medications, including gum, patches, nasal sprays, inhalers and lozenges. 

Arizona Benefit Options, the state division that handles benefits information for state employees, is promoting the service, which covers up to $500 in medications over the life of the employee.

“Quitting is very difficult,” said Stephen Michael, director of the Arizona Smokers’ Helpline, a service offered to Arizona residents trying to quit. 

“The biggest challenge we see in people who are trying to quit is that they are still using tobacco as a stress reliever,” Michael said.

Once they make the decision to stop smoking, another challenge is having a support system in place to keep them on track. 

To fill that need, Arizona residents can turn to the UA-based Arizona Smokers’ Helpline, also known as the ASHLine, which serves as a resource for smokers who need a little help.

The service and its “coaches” help between 5,000 and 10,000 clients annually, with a special focus on college and university students, as well as low-income Arizonans, Michael said.

After a successful campaign held earlier this year, the service, which operates out of the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and is funded by money generated from taxes on tobacco sales in Arizona, received more than 8,000 calls during a six-week period.

“It’s like when you are losing weight and you have tried it several times on your own. Eventually, you might want to get yourself a trainer,” Michael said.

“This is like having a trainer at the gym and provides two things: Someone to be accountable to and someone who understands what you are going through, but won’t judge you for it,” he added. 

The ASHLine coaches assess their clients’ situations to determine the type of support they need.

Coaches then contact individuals, shooting for one 15-minute conversation each week. During that time, coaches try to encourage people to chose a “quit date” and work toward that goal. 

Laila Halaby, a senior outreach counselor who works with more than 70 clients, said she tries to build a connection early with each of them.

“With some of them, they have been smoking 30 or 40 years. Some people have tried a zillion times to quit and need the support. Others have never quit and haven’t the foggiest idea how,” said Halaby, who smoked for six years and has since quit.

In addition to providing support, she offers tips. “You’re giving them basic ideas, like keeping the cigarettes in the trunk when you’re driving. With some, it’s just logistical stuff.”

And even if a relapse occurs, Halaby urges her clients on.

“They feel they have ruined it. I hear that a lot: ‘I failed.’ But I keep reminding them that quitting is consistently a process, it’s not just an event,” she said. 

After their clients quit, the coaches work with them to develop new choices to help them remain tobacco-free.

Coaches generally spend about three months working with each client. 

For the most part, the coaches are there to motivate and offer much-needed support, said Michael, who has overseen the ASHLine since 2006.

Dale Gehring, a smoking cessation coach who has worked for the ASHLine for 12 years, said he made the transition from health care management because he wanted to work more closely with patients.

“One of the things that became very obvious in medical care is that lifestyle makes a difference in people’s health,” Gehring said. 

“First of all, there is the addiction, and it is a very controlling aspect of a person’s life,” Gehring said. 

He noted that those who are trying to quit must be particularly attentive to aspects of their lives that contribute to their smoking, such as a lax support system and family and friends who continue to smoke. 

Boredom is another factor, he said. 

For state employees, combining free medication with support services like the ASHLine could be a powerful combination in breaking the habit, Michael said.

Data shows that people who quit cold turkey tend to do better than those who wean themselves with medication, he said.

“But research also is beginning to show that a combination between getting medications and getting help is having the greatest success.”

Gehring said he and his ASHLine colleagues encourage people to find an appropriate balance between support networks, medications and personal drive.

Gehring said “a doctor could prescribe a pill or a treatment,” but that people should remember that it usually is not one single cause that leads to quitting, but a combination of support and treatment.

For more information about getting free smoking cessation medications, contact Arizona Benefit Options at 602-542-5008. The ASHLine can be reached by calling 800-556-6222.   

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