For over four decades, the Great American Smokeout, hosted by the American Cancer Society every third Thursday of November, has been a rallying point for those seeking freedom from tobacco’s grasp. This year, the Orlando VA Healthcare System, (OVAHCS) and Veterans nationwide stand united, embodying the spirit of this event and sharing stories of triumph over smoking addiction.
Among these victors is Mark Dunbar, an Air Force Veteran whose journey through smoking, mirrors the struggles of many trying to kick the habit. Growing up in a smoking family, Mark’s exposure to cigarettes was a daily norm. His high school even had a designated smoking section for students, illustrating the constant presence of tobacco in his early life.
Mark’s military career didn’t provide an escape from smoking culture either, but as an air traffic controller, it was prohibited around the highly sensitive equipment. Describing the designated smoking room, Mark vividly recalls it as, “like walking into a pool hall, crowded, full of smoke, with everyone trying to get as many puffs in as they could for 15 minutes before rushing back to work.”
Motivation to quit struck Mark at the age of 50 having been diagnosed with COPD after 35 years of smoking. He also yearned to witness his young nephew and nieces grow up. Despite intermittent attempts to quit, he faced challenges when external factors like stress or social situations which triggered relapses. Mark approached the VA seeking support, receiving medications like lozenges, patches, and nicotine gum to counter his cravings.
Dr. Laurie Wolf, Health Behavior Coordinator at the OVAHCS, sheds light on the comprehensive approach the VA takes in supporting Veterans through tobacco cessation. Dr. Wolf highlights the variety of options available, from individual and group treatment to pharmacotherapy and behavioral counseling.
Dr. Wolf stresses the importance of motivation, acknowledging that readiness to quit varies among individuals. Dr. Wolf explained, “The VA provides evidence-based treatments, with a focus on motivational interviewing to build Veterans’ readiness for change.”
Dr. Wolf reassures Veterans by stating, “The more times someone keeps trying to quit, the more likely they are to be successful. Even if they haven’t had success in the past, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to have success moving forward.”
She encourages Veterans to persevere, reemphasizing those multiple attempts at quitting smoking ultimately increase the likelihood of success.
Within the OVAHCS there are several options for treatment according to Dr. Wolf.
“Patients can talk with a pharmacist or medical provider if they prefer medications or nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches, gum or lozenges. These providers do a phenomenal job of educating our Veterans and giving them pharmacological options that best fit their needs. .”
Dr. Wolf further explains, “Veterans can also meet individually with a mental health provider, whether it’s someone like myself, a health psychologist, or other mental health or medical providers, to receive behavioral counseling to quit tobacco use. We collaborate with Veterans to build motivation, identify behavioral strategies to break the habit, and set realistic goals to help them make progress.”
Virtual help is also available.
“We have a one-time class, once a month over video that covers motivation to quit, education about strategies to break the habit and tips for preparing for quit day. The pharmacist also does an overview of medications and nicotine replacement therapy”, said Dr. Wolf.
Dr. Wolf went on to highlight her experience with Veterans who opt for group classes with other Veterans trying to quit tobacco. She noted the success of collaborative efforts among Veterans, as they set goals, share progress, and support each other.
For Veteran Mark Dunbar, family and health became his motivating forces, even resisting the smoking peer pressure from his own elderly mother.
Another health scare at the age of 60 of potential lung cancer intensified his resolve. The biopsy came back benign, but the scare served as a final wake-up call, pushing Mark to quit for good after 45 years of smoking.
As Mark Dunbar proudly declares, “There are better things to do with your time than smoke. You’ll live longer; smoking is expensive, and it’s not good for your health. If you care about yourself and your family, quit smoking.”
For more information about the tobacco cessation program at the OVAHCS, please request a consultation from your primary care provider.
Hansraj Raghunandan is the Public Affairs Specialist for the Orlando VA Health Care System. Pictured in photo: Air Force Veteran Mark Dunbar