Ever since Bill Evans smoked his first cigarette as a teenager, he was hooked.
Over the next four decades, he tried to quit countless times, trying everything from nicotine patches and gum to hypnosis and Zyban. Nothing worked; he always ended up smoking again.
Bill decided he needed to try a new approach. So, at age 53, he enrolled in UCSF Medical Center's Smoking Cessation Classes, a four-week program that covers everything from cessation health benefits to addiction, motivation and strategies for quitting.
The Tobacco Education Center offers classes as well as individual consultations with doctors trained in treating tobacco addiction to help smokers who want to quit maximize the likelihood of success. The class, taught by Suzanne Harris, a registered nurse and former smoker, gave Bill the tools he needed to quit for good.
"For me, the group process was a very effective tool," he said. "I wanted to quit and I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be able to do it alone. Being able to exchange ideas with other people who were going through the same thing really helped. Everything I tried before — like nicotine gum or the patch — just focused on one thing at a time. This was so much more comprehensive."
Bill set a "quit date" for the third week of class. He used a combination of nicotine gum, lozenges and an inhaler to aid cessation. But ultimately, learning about the psychology and physiology involved in the quitting process helped Bill understand the necessary steps he needed to take in order to quit and how to deal with issues that might make him relapse. Before the end of the four-week class, he had achieved his goal.
Six years later, Bill, now 59, is smoke free. He's had a few brief relapses, but he's turned to UCSF's weekly relapse prevention support group whenever he's slipped (UCSF Smoking Cessation class graduates are eligible to attend the weekly support group, whether or not they've quit smoking). The group, he says, has provided accountability and support that has been key to his ongoing success. Now, he's reaping the health benefits of a life without smoking.
"My breathing is so much improved," he says, "whether I'm hiking in the mountains or just climbing stairs, I don't feel like I'm running out of air. My sense of taste and smell is improved. And I don't have to plan my life around smoking."
Bill is just one of many successful program graduates. On graduation, more than 50 percent of participants have stopped smoking, and 47 percent are still smoke-free after one year.
"It's such a valuable program," Bill said. "I'm so grateful."
Story written August 2011.
Kendra Mayfield is a freelance writer in San Francisco.