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The Phones Light Up, Not the Callers


To nicotine patches, gum and inhalers, add another convenient tool for smokers trying to quit--the telephone.

Last week, investigators at UC San Diego reported that phone counseling services known as "quitlines" nearly double the likelihood that a smoker trying to quit will succeed. California and 32 other states operate the toll-free services, in which addiction counselors work with smokers to develop strategies for avoiding cigarettes. The report, which appeared in the Oct. 3 New England Journal of Medicine, is the first test to determine whether the quitlines are having any effect.

"This is very good news for smokers," said Shu-Hong Zhu, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at UC San Diego, which operates the service for the state of California. The study, he said, demonstrates that phone counseling is as good as the nicotine patch in helping people quit.

Addiction counselors consider smoking the hardest habit to break this side of heroin.

In one study, heavy drug users undergoing treatment rated tobacco as their "most needed" drug, ahead of alcohol and methadone, among others. Even long-term programs have trouble maintaining success rates much higher than 10% among heavy users.

The UC San Diego quitline program got roughly the same result: 1 in 10 callers smoke-free after a year. Among smokers who called the service once but never followed up, only 1 in 20 were smoke-free after a year.

Quitlines are much more likely to reach low-income smokers than walk-in clinics are, Zhu said.

Still, the quitline service is vastly underused. In California, which has an estimated 4 million smokers, the statewide line received only 55,000 calls last year. Zhu expects that to change as the word gets out. (For English service, call [800] 662-8887; for Spanish, [800] 456-6386.) The service typically involves a 40-minute planning session with a counselor and two or three follow-up calls. And you can't beat the price.

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