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Terrorist Attacks Put Heat on U.S. Smokers

Health: The stress in the days since Sept. 11 has driven some to quit, while prompting others to light up even more.

November 18, 2001|JESSICA WOHL | REUTERS

NEW YORK — Corey, a 24-year-old New Yorker, watched the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 on television and headed straight to her vice--smoking. But the next day, she couldn't even think about lighting up a cigarette.

"Between watching the smoke on TV and inhaling it when I went outside, the thought of smoking made me sick," she said.

A week and a half later, though, she was back to smoking.

For many Americans, the immediate aftermath of the traumatic attacks changed behavior patterns, as people dealt with the stress and fear from the harrowing events. Some took it as a cue to hit snacks and other comfort foods, destroying months of dieting in the process, others tried to forget by hitting gyms and taking on other athletic pursuits.

Some smokers trying to quit found the post-attack period unusually challenging. Quitnet, a Web community of smokers and ex-smokers helping each other quit, saw the number of people looking for one-on-one counseling stay consistent after the attack. But the number of people going into its public forums asking for help probably doubled, said Quitnet's Alan Peters.

Peters, a tobacco treatment specialist at the site (, said many discussions have focused on how ex-smokers "stay quit" at a time like this.

"There has definitely been a bonding that's gone on among our members," he said.

Many people that track smoking figures said they have seen anecdotal evidence of more smoking. But it's too early to look at any government data to chart those trends, they said. And it's hard to pinpoint just what has happened. Sales of cigarettes at U.S. supermarkets and drug stores actually fell in the four weeks including and just after the attacks, according to Information Resources Inc.

But that data doesn't include sales at convenience stores or gas stations, places impulse smokers often stop by for a pack. Philip Morris Cos. Inc., the world's top cigarette company, said that it has not seen a change in data since Sept. 11 to support any anecdotal evidence of a sales increase.

Health agencies say the trend has been toward quitting. Roughly a quarter of American adults still smoke, but that number is down from more than 40% in the 1960s. Data show that the percentage continues to edge lower each year. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 23.3% of U.S. adults smoked last year, down from 24.7% in 1997.

More Social Smoking

New Yorkers said that they saw a lot of social smokers, those who smoke occasionally when out at bars or parties, starting to buy their own packs and smoking more regularly.

"It's a habit of what to do when you don't know what to do and how to calm down when you're thinking about things that are way beyond your control," said one New Yorker, whose average number of cigarettes per day doubled after Sept. 11.

"My roommate and I were watching the news at home," she said. "After about 20 minutes of shock, the first thing we did was pull out cigarettes and we just kept smoking. We couldn't stop all day."

Yet it seems that many who were trying to quit smoking before the attacks have resisted the momentary urge to light up. Dr. Neil Schachter, director of respiratory care at New York's Mount Sinai, said that while it is plausible that people may be smoking more, or finding it hard to quit, he has no evidence of that.

"Usually when my patients drop off the wagon I don't hear about it immediately," said Schachter, a past president of the American Lung Assn. of New York. "They're not anxious to tell me that they've failed."

He said he has not has more canceling or rescheduling of one-on-one sessions than usual.

If anything, he said, people working or living downtown "would be more inclined to protest against secondhand smoke or to stop smoking or to try to stop smoking." Schachter said many people in the area have experienced bronchial and upper respiratory symptoms and are sensitive to cigarette smoke.

Experts say there is no clear pattern about what inspires people to quit. The Quitnet site gives users a guide to quitting, telling them to get their clothes cleaned so they do not smell like smoke and remember to drink a lot of fluids to flush nicotine from the system and ward off some withdrawal symptoms.

The site also describes therapies, such as nicotine patches and gum.

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