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Alaska offers free texting and online programs for smokers trying to quit

Tegan Hanlon

Alaska smokers looking to quit tobacco can now turn for support to a free text-messaging service provided by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. It's like having a personal, state-funded cheerleader inside your cellphone.

Text2Quit sends out automated messages that revolve around the user's quit date. One reads: "Today is the big day! Are you ready to live a long and healthier life? Let us know if you are quitting today. Reply yes or no." Once you've reached two weeks without tobacco, you'll receive: "Congratulations on making it to day 14. You are over the hardest part and have already saved $98 and added 51 hours to your life."

The Alaska Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, operated by the DHSS, unveiled the texting service this spring alongside a new Web Coach program that lets participants chat through online forums and blogs while charting how much money they have saved since they stopped smoking, said Alison Kulas, the program's manager. According to Alaska Tobacco Facts 2014, published by the state health department, tobacco use cost the sate $327 million in direct medical bills in 2011.

Both of the 21st century quitting mechanisms are add-ons to Alaska's Tobacco Quit Line, an around-the-clock phone support service that started in 2002. It also offers nicotine patches, gum and lozenges. All the services come at no cost to users, Kulas said.

To fund the Quit Line, the program budgets about $600,000 in state-allocated money each year. This year, the program reconfigured its budget to cover the new texting and online services. Kulas said it will spend less on the traditional Quit Line because the pool of callers is smaller than expected. It also changed the way it doles out free nicotine replacement therapy, switching to a combination treatment and providing it for two weeks instead of eight.

"We track our budget closely through the year and are quick to capitalize on opportunities to strengthen our services," Kulas said. "Overall, we believe it's a great cost savings to Alaska because the more options there are to help you quit, more tobacco users will be able to quit successfully."

In fiscal year 2013, the quit line received 3,927 calls, with 3,300 of those callers requesting intervention to help quit smoking or chewing tobacco. The program estimates that 30 percent of the people -- about 990 callers -- followed through, Kulas said.

"We know three out of four smokers want to quit, and every person quits differently," Kulas said. "This really is that wrap-around service to help Alaskans quit successfully because we know they want to."

Participants can text buzzwords to the program like "smoked" if they used tobacco and need advice or "crave" for tips on how to deal with nicotine cravings.

Researchers at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., found that smokers who used a texting program were more than twice as likely to quit using tobacco, according to a study published in June by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

For more information on Alaska's Tobacco Quit Line, call 800-784-8669 or visit alaskaquitline.com.


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com