By Maya Bell
MIAMI, Fla.— For nearly 30 years, cigarettes ruled Jerome Hicks’ life, robbing him of his health, his money, and his time. But one Monday morning in 2013, the disabled concrete finisher woke up with the determination, the support system, and, most importantly, the tools to conquer the deadly addiction that disproportionally harms African Americans like himself.
Before even climbing out of bed, he applied a nicotine patch to his left arm, then got dressed, and headed to the first of eight intense counseling sessions of UQuit, a smoking cessation study being conducted by the Department of Psychology’s Tobacco, Obesity, and Oncology Laboratory, or TOOL. In just four years, the study has screened 1,000 potential participants, a notable milestone as it seeks to determine whether the combination of nicotine replacement and traditional cognitive behavioral therapy is as effective an intervention for mostly low-income, racially and ethnically diverse smokers as it has proven to be for middle-class white smokers.
Monica Webb Hooper, associate professor of psychology and a member of the cancer prevention, control, and survivorship program at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, established TOOL in part to answer that question. As she notes, African American and Hispanic smokers suffer more health consequences from cigarette smoking, yet they are underrepresented in smoking cessation clinical trials. She is encouraged by both the response to and the preliminary results of UQuit. The only evidence-based smoking cessation research clinic in South Florida, UQuit is funded by the James and Esther King Biomedical Research Program, the Pap Corps Champions for Cancer Research, and the University.
“We are having an impact,” Webb Hooper said. “Smokers and their families are interested in what we are doing and want to be involved because, by word of mouth, they know it can work.”
To date, more than half of the 250 smokers who completed UQuit, many of whom are African Americans like Hicks, managed to stop smoking by the end of the four-week program. A year later, 45 percent still hadn’t resumed the costly habit, an extraordinary success rate.
“Nine out of ten attempts to quit smoking are unsuccessful, especially for people who try to do it alone,” Webb Hooper notes.
Now 45, Hicks, who began smoking at age 15, hasn’t touched a cigarette since that Monday morning he attended his first session of UQuit, which asks participants to attend eight individual or group counseling sessions over four weeks, and wear an increasingly lower-dose nicotine patch for eight weeks.
In the counseling sessions, participants learn strategies to cope with nicotine withdrawal, to change the patterns that perpetuated their habit, and to handle stress without the smoking crutch they’ve relied on for so long.
They also hear a lot of hard science and cold facts—including how the nicotine patch doesn’t include the 7,000 other chemicals and toxins in cigarettes, or how more people die each year from smoking-related diseases than from alcohol, cocaine, heroin, car accidents, murder, suicide, fire, and AIDS combined.
“It works because we provide the gold standard,’’ said TOOL research associate Shaneisha Allen. “We don’t just give them a nicotine patch. We target all three parts of nicotine dependence—the emotional dependence, the physical dependence, and the habit. We provide a great support system, and we believe in them. We also know you never quit quitting. If you don’t succeed the first time, you try again. We provide positive motivation.”
Hicks’ initial motivation came from his doctor, who warned him that his lungs were turning black from his two-pack-a-day habit. But, he says, UQuit counselors enabled him to endure nicotine withdrawal, banish the thoughts and routines that revolved around his next smoke, and enjoy spending his free time—and his money—on healthier pursuits, such as reading and exercising.
“I couldn’t have done it without the program. It wasn’t easy, but it changed my behavior,” said Hicks, who has a plate in his neck from a job injury. “I learned I could control my stress without smoking, and I did. “I’m really proud of that. Now I wake up every morning with more money in my pocket and feeling really good.”
For more information about UQuit, visit http://www.psy.miami.edu/tool, or call 1-877-850-8665 (TOOL).
Maya Bell can be reached at 305-284-7972.