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American Smokers Find Help a Phone Call Away

Millions of Americans have a new tool to help them give up tobacco: a nationwide toll-free number that smokers can call for information and counseling. Help lines for tobacco users are already being used in other countries and several individual U-S states.

California had the first publicly funded smokers help line in the United States. It started taking calls in 1992--not only in English, but also in Spanish and four Asian languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean. In the 12 years since then, the California smokers help line has served as a model for similar lines across the nation.

"Smokers want to quit anyway...what the quit line can do is enhance their motivation," says Shu Hong Zhu, director of the California tobacco quit line and an associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of California in San Diego. 4,000 smokers call the line each month after making the decision to quit, and the trained counselors who answer the phones help them follow through with a game plan.

Support for smokers doesn't end with that phone call. "We will call you to see how things are going," Mr. Zhu says. "So quitters receive the support and accountability at the time they need it the most."

Although callers can just ask for printed material to help them quit, 60% request one-on-one counseling. Counselors tailor their advice to each caller's specific needs.

"First we would talk to you about motivation and whether you've ever quit before and how long you've been smoking," says Susan Hine, a long-time counselor with the California help line. The information gathered in the screening helps counselors develop a customized plan. For example, for smokers who feel especially strong urges to smoke after a meal, Ms. Hine says counselors would discuss options to replace the after-meal cigarette.

About 75% of American smokers say they want to quit. But fewer than one in 20 are able to stay tobacco-free for three to 12 months. Helpline organizers say use of the toll-free service increases the smokers' odds of quitting for good by 20%. More importantly, it has the potential to reach a large population at a relatively low cost.

"One big advantage of the quit line is to try and create a sense among the smoking population that everyone is quitting," says director Shu Hong Zhu. He reports that a media campaign against second-hand smoke that advertised the toll-free tobacco quit line has motivated many Californians to call. "We have found, especially for the Asian population here, it really mobilized the community," he says.

Smoking is the most preventable cause of death, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency hopes the new nationwide tobacco quit line will mobilize smokers from coast to coast to make the call that could save their lives or the lives of their loved ones.