Medical Minute: Trying to quit smoking? Don’t go it alone.

Arm putting out cigarette in an outdoor ashtray.

We live in an era of self-empowerment. But when it comes to quitting smoking, going it alone isn’t the best approach.

That’s because smoking isn’t just a bad habit ― it’s an addiction. “Smokers develop a physiological dependence on nicotine, and they need more than willpower to quit,” said Dr. Danish Ahmad, a pulmonologist with Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

The American Cancer Society says it takes smokers eight to 10 quit attempts before they achieve success. But don’t get discouraged. “The more times people try to quit, the more successful they might be the next time,” said Diane Schmeck, a certified tobacco treatment specialist at Penn State Health St. Joseph.

Many smokers – seven in 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – already know they want to quit. And while many know smoking increases the risk for lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, they don’t always know the other health risks, from cancers of the esophagus, pancreas and stomach to more subtle conditions. Smoking also negatively affects breathing and is the greatest risk factor for developing emphysema.

“Smoking affects your small blood vessels, which can mean poor circulation in the arms or legs, or a greater risk of erectile dysfunction in males,” Schmeck said.

Smokers will notice the health benefits of quitting almost immediately. “Within 20 minutes, a smoker’s heart rate and blood pressure improve, and within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level drops,” Ahmad said. Within two weeks, quitters reduce their risk for a heart attack and breathing improves. Within one year, they cut their heart disease risk in half. And within 10 years, their risk of dying from lung cancer is half that of someone who is actively smoking.

While some people think e-cigarettes offer a bridge to quitting smoking, this is not recommended by the health care community. “There is no evidence that vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes,” Ahmad said. E-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, but most contain nicotine, which makes vaping just as addictive as cigarette smoking.

Statistically, smokers have the best chance of quitting successfully through programs that combine one-on-one counseling, group support and medication. Counseling helps smokers identify their habits, patterns and triggers and shows them what behaviors they may need to change.

In addition to counseling, physicians recommend two different types of medication. One is nicotine replacement therapy—patches, gums or lozenges. “These medicines replace the nicotine the body is seeking as a result of smoking cigarettes,” Ahmad said. The other types are oral medications, the most frequently recommended of which is varenicline (Chantix).

The good news: Many insurance plans cover smoking cessation programs.

Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center offers one-on-one counseling through its Smoking Cessation Clinic. Participants meet with tobacco treatment specialists who help them develop personal quit plans and strategies.

In addition, the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center now offers group counseling at the University Fitness Center. People can self-refer by calling 717-531-6985.

At St. Joseph Medical Center, tobacco treatment specialists provide smoking cessation counseling to inpatients and on request. Outpatients receive counseling at Pulmonary Rehabilitation and the Pulmonary Diagnostics Laboratory. People can refer themselves to the program by calling 610-208-8811 or emailing

People in Berks County can also take advantage of bilingual counseling offered through the Council on Chemical Abuse. And anyone can use resources from the Department of Health’s 1-800-QUIT-NOW phone and internet counseling line, or from the CDC’s app.

No matter which resource someone chooses, the fact remains that it’s never too late to quit. “The best thing you can do for your health is to keep working on it,” Ahmad said.

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