Veterans and Tobacco Addiction: Where to Seek Support

Tobacco Addiction Among Veterans

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking-related diseases have killed 10 times more Americans than the combined toll in all the wars the country has fought. And yet smoking continues to be an important part of the military culture. According to the CDC, smoking is more common among military personnel than civilians.

Cigarettes are often handed out as awards. They are discounted at military stores. Seeing their superiors smoke is perceived as validation by many young recruits who then pick up the habit. Smoking cigarettes also provides an enjoyable way to while away time between duty hours.

Despite knowing about the health risks smoking poses, military personnel continue to smoke, hoping that they will shrug off the habit when they return to civilian life. But nicotine is a highly addictive substance. Quitting smoking is hard unless you have support.

How can veterans quit smoking?

  • Learn about the benefits of quitting smoking
  • Seek treatment for any mental health disorder that you may have
  • Identify smoking triggers
  • Learn alternative coping mechanisms to ride over urges
  • Use tobacco cessation medication
  • Seek help from friends and family members

What are the benefits of quitting smoking?

Major health benefits of quitting smoking include:

  • Reduction in blood pressure that in turn, keeps your kidneys healthy
  • Improvement in lung function
  • Decrease in the risk of developing chronic bronchitis
  • Reduction in the risk of developing cancer and heart disease
  • Decreased risk of suffering from strokes

Besides the physical health benefits, keep your motivation levels up by focusing on one or more of the following powerful emotional reasons for quitting smoking that may apply to you:

  • You want to be more energetic and productive.
  • You want to be there for your kids.
  • You don’t want to expose your family to second-hand smoke. (According to the CDC, second-hand smoke causes more than 41,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.)
  • You want to be a positive role model for your kids and your community.
  • You want to manage and improve the symptoms of any underlying medical condition that you may have.
  • You want to improve your mental health.

Smoking and Mental Health Disorders

There seems to be a positive association between mental health disorders and smoking tobacco. The CDC presents the following figures:

  • 40% of men and 34% of women with an underlying mental health disorder smoke cigarettes
  • 31% of all cigarettes are smoked by adults with a mental health condition

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the link between smoking and mental health disorders is stronger in veterans than among civilians. The following numbers prove the claim:

  • Veterans with a mental illness enrolled in the VA healthcare system have been found to smoke twice as much as people without mental health disorders
  • Veterans with mental health disorders smoke more heavily than people without mental health conditions
  • Veterans who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown a 50% increase in smoking

The incidence of mental health illness is high among veterans. About 25-40% of veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system have a mental health disorder while a staggering one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan vets have a psychiatric disorder. The disorders range from mild depression to severe psychiatric disorders like PTSD.

So if you are battling a mental health issue besides being addicted to tobacco, it is imperative that you consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Managing and treating your mental health disorder could be the key to quitting smoking successfully.

Smoking Triggers

Smoking triggers are cues that bring on a powerful urge to smoke. Not being able to resist and giving in to an urge is one of the most common causes of a relapse. A critical part of successfully quitting smoking is to learn about these triggers, so you are not caught unaware.

What are triggers for smoking?

Even seemingly innocuous situations can trigger the urge to smoke:

  • Drinking a cup of tea or coffee
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being around a smoker
  • Needing a break from what you are doing
  • Seeing tobacco advertisements
  • Feeling bored
  • Experiencing emotional stress
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, depression, anxiety, irritability, and increased appetite

You probably used to smoke a cigarette during your active-duty days when you had nothing to do for quite some time. Cigarette probably soothed your nerves when you felt stressed during your service days. Now your brain has been conditioned to respond to such situations by triggering an urge for a cigarette, so it has to be re-programmed.

You can maintain a diary to record all those instances when you felt almost compelled to smoke. A counselor at your local smoking cessation clinic can also help you identify your smoking triggers.

Resisting Urges

A foolproof way of not giving in to smoking triggers is to avoid them altogether. You can avoid being around people who smoke or places where you might be exposed to cigarette smoke or see people smoking, like restaurants that permit smoking.

However, you cannot always stay away from smoking triggers. If you know your smoking triggers and are mindful of them, you can ride them out. These urges last for less than 10 minutes. If you know the techniques to resist these temptations, it is easy to form a habit of not yielding to urges. Below are some easy-to-follow techniques to resist urges when they strike:

  • Practice controlled breathing. Inhale deeply, hold your breath and count to five, and exhale slowly while counting to five. Repeat the process until you are sure that you no longer feel the need to smoke.
  • Get out and take a walk around the neighborhood or run around the park.
  • Listen to calming music or read a book to distract you from the urge.
  • Learn substitute behaviors like chewing gum, sucking on a cinnamon stick, eating sugarless candy, or squeezing a handball.
  • Take up a hobby that will distract you when you have the urge to smoke.

These techniques are ways you can reprogram your brain and make it unlearn self-destructive behavioral responses.

Tobacco Cessation Medication

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved various tobacco cessation products to help you beat addiction. These include:

Nicotine Replacement Products

Sometimes quitting cold turkey brings on powerful and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Nicotine replacement products contain nicotine in regulated amounts and are designed to wean you off cigarettes. These may be over-the-counter products such as skin patches, chewing gum, lozenges, or prescription medicines that can come in the form of an inhaler or a nasal spray. These should ideally be taken for a short time to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Medicines That Act on the Neural Circuitry Associated with Smoking

The FDA has approved Chantix and Zyban as smoking cessation products. Chantix is known to block some of the effects of nicotine on the brain. This makes smoking less pleasurable and reduces withdrawal symptoms. Zyban is believed to reduce the urge to smoke, but it is not prescribed to people below 18 years of age.

Ensure that you speak to a doctor before you begin nicotine replacement therapy. Let him or her know about any underlying medical condition you might have, like diabetes, asthma, cardiac diseases, high blood pressure, or have had a heart attack recently.

Many tobacco cessation products have side effects that you need to know about. For instance, Chantix can trigger seizures or worsen cardiovascular problems in people with cardiac ailments while Zyban can cause mood swings, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Ask your health care provider for the details or go through the detailed product information sheets here.

Social Support

It is critical that you have the support of your loved ones on your journey to a smoke-free life. It also helps if you can be a part of a community of people who are on the same path as you are or have quit smoking successfully. They can inspire you when relapse seems to be the easier way out than fighting seemingly incessant cravings or provide guidance when you are confused.

Here are some tips:

  • Ask a family member who lives with you to quit smoking or not smoke in front of you. The sight of someone smoking is a powerful cue.
  • Request your loved ones to respect your wish to visit smoke-free restaurants.
  • Ask your loved ones to remind you of the reasons you decided to quit smoking.
  • Surround yourself with inspiration.

The Real Stories section on the CDC website has accounts by and of service personnel who have won the battle against tobacco addiction. Learning about their losses, struggles, and battles will steel your determination to defeat tobacco addiction and stay focused on your journey to a smoke-free life.

  • Glean tips from those who have completed the journey.

The Tips from Former Smokers is a YouTube campaign by the CDC to help you learn from those who have been there, done that, and understand your unique challenges.

What are the VA stop smoking support tools?

  • A VA healthcare provider
  • Smoking cessation counseling
  • Smoking quitlines
  • SmokefreeVET text message support
  • Online educational resources

According to the American Lung Association, 77% of veterans who try to quit smoking fail. But don’t let this piece of statistic discourage you. You can successfully quit smoking and stay away from tobacco with a concrete plan. If you are enrolled in the VA healthcare system, there are plenty of readily-available resources that will help you quit tobacco.

Support Services at a VA Healthcare Facility

A VA healthcare provider can both counsel you and provide smoking cessation medication. These counseling services are provided at all VA medical centers while the FDA-approved smoking cessation products are available at all VA pharmacies.

The Veterans Health Administration Facility Locator directory will help you find a VA healthcare facility near where you live.

Smoking Quitlines

The following smoking quitlines provide telephonic support services to veterans who want to quit smoking:

VA’s smoking quitline at 1-855-QUIT-VET (1-855-784-8838)

You can call this toll-free number and have a counselor prepare a quit plan for you, answer your questions, guide you to prevent a relapse, or support you in any other way you want. These individualized services are provided by trained professionals in English or Spanish.

1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669)

This toll-free number will connect you directly to the quitline support services of your state that are managed by trained coaches.

National Cancer Institute’s Quitline at 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848)

You can call this number to speak with trained counselors.

American Lung Association Lung Helpline and Tobacco Quitline at 1-800-LUNG-USA

Call this number to obtain information on tobacco-related lung disorders, preserving and improving lung health, and ways to quit smoking.

SmokefreeVET

SmokefreeVET is an automated mobile text messaging support service for veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system. This 24×7 program provides encouragement, information, tips, and guidance to veterans who want to quit tobacco and stay smoke-free.

You can sign up for the services here. You can also text VET to 47848 to receive support in English or VETesp to receive the service in Spanish.

Online Educational Resources

You can browse the following free online educational resources to learn, dispel myths, remove doubts, and find the answers to your questions:

VA’s Tobacco and Health

Visit this page to learn more about tobacco cessation counseling and medications and also special issues like “Mental Health and Tobacco,” “HIV and Tobacco,” “Substance Abuse and Tobacco,” and “Women and Tobacco.”

SmokeFree.gov

This resource contains information on the benefits of quitting smoking.

BeTobaccoFree.gov

Visit this site if you want to learn about the short- and long-term health benefits of quitting tobacco.

ucanquit2.org

This site provides information to help veterans quit tobacco. This is a Department of Defense initiative that also offers a 24×7 online chat service to VHA veterans who want to speak with an expert.

National Cancer Institute’s LiveHelp Service

This is managed by information specialists who can answer your questions on tobacco-related cancers and how to quit smoking.

Even the most determined person may have to try to quit tobacco five or six times before he or she can give it up for good. Being able to quit tobacco and managing to stay away from it even with triggers all around you boils down to having a plan, always remembering why you want to quit, and using all the support tools you have around you.