NC Offering Free Nicotine-replacement Products

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North Carolina is providing free nicotine-replacement therapy products for a limited time to 9,500 smokers.

The products are being made available through the QuitlineNC program. Smokers are required to enroll in a personalized quit-smoking plan that includes a coach.

Money for the products came from the one-time transfer of money to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services from the former Health and Wellness Trust Fund. State officials would not say how much money is being transferred.

“Despite the General Assembly's elimination of the Health and Wellness Trust Fund (in 2011), we are able to continue putting those dollars to work to reduce smoking rates and improve health in North Carolina,” Gov. Bev Perdue said.

The products are available on a first-come, first-served basis by calling (800) 784-8669 between 6 a.m. and 3 a.m. People who sign up for the program, which requires four calls to the line, may receive up to eight weeks of medication mailed to their homes.

“Nicotine-replacement therapy has been proven in well-designed research studies to significantly increase quit rates when used in combination with cessation counseling,” said Jeff Engel, the state's health director.

“In fact, in 2010, six-month quit rates for QuitlineNC callers who used nicotine patches and coaching for eight weeks were twice as high as those who received coaching with little or no nicotine therapy.”

However, a study released Jan. 9 by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts-Boston questioned the long-term effectiveness of nicotine-replacement products.

Researchers said their study of 787 adult smokers in Massachusetts found that the products, specifically nicotine patches and gum, “are no more effective in helping people stop smoking cigarettes in the long term than trying to quit on one's own,” said Hillel Alpert, a research scientist with the Harvard group and the study's lead author.

Joyce Swetlick, director of tobacco cessation for the N.C. Division of Public Health, acknowledged the significance of the Harvard study, saying “we know that relapse rates among all smokers who quit are very high.

“There is no magic bullet that can make quitting and staying quit easy for all smokers.

“The study revealed that many quitters do not use nicotine therapy properly or for the recommended periods of time. Perhaps by providing the medication free, along with free coaching, more quitters will get the full benefit of the proven effective medication.”

Lois Biener, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said using public money to provide nicotine-replacement therapy products to the population at large “is of questionable value, particularly when it reduces the amount of money available for smoking interventions shown in previous studies to be effective, such as media campaigns, promotion of no-smoking policies and tobacco price increases.”

Bill Godshall, executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania, is a vocal supporter of smokeless tobacco products — such as snus, dissolvable sticks, orbs and film strips for the tongue — as potential smoking-cessation tools.

“Governments shouldn't subsidize and promote products marketed by one company, while demonizing nearly identical products made by other companies,” Godshall said.

NOTE: This article was written by Richard Craver and appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal Thursday.