Gil Merchant was just 39 years old when he had his first heart attack. He has suffered two more in the past couple of years, and he’s only 50. He has smoked cigarettes since he was 16.
“Heart attacks run in my family,” Merchant, of Brewer, said matter-of-factly during a recent interview. “My doctor’s been on my butt for years to quit smoking.”
This New Year’s Day, Merchant’s physician might just get his wish.
Merchant, who is the head of the fuel department at Bangor International Airport, is among thousands of Mainers who are planning to kick the tobacco habit on Jan. 1, the traditional day of resolution and self-improvement.
Maine ranks 24th in nation for the percentage of adults who smoke cigarettes. About 18 percent of adults in Maine smoked in 2008, on par with the national average and down from more than 30 percent in 1997. Men are more likely to smoke than women.
Other tobacco users smoke pipes and cigars or use smokeless products such as chewing tobacco and snuff. Cigarette smokers are by far the largest group. All forms of tobacco use are addictive and linked to cancer and other illnesses, authorities say.
The number of new callers to the Maine Tobacco HelpLine, which provides assistance and support to would-be quitters, typically jumps by about 50 percent every January, from the usual 350 calls in other months to about 500 calls.
The help line staff works with smokers to create a “quit plan” tailored to their specific circumstances, taking into account their smoking habits, the environmental and emotional “triggers” that make them reach for a smoke, their family influences and other factors. The program, which can provide nicotine patches, gum and other aids to help smokers quit, is run through the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Merchant has quit smoking before — many times.
“I’ve tried the nicotine patch, cold turkey, Nicorette gum, Chantix. I even tried hypnosis,” he said cheerfully. “About the only thing I haven’t tried is sewing my lips together.”
Maybe this time, he said, something will be different.
Bonnie Irwin, a Bangor-based tobacco-cessation expert working with the Maine CDC, said Merchant will have plenty of nonsmoking company come the first of the year.
“New Year’s Day is the number one day for people to consider giving up smoking,” she said. In addition to the opportunity for general self-improvement that rolls around at this time every year, Irwin said, the settling-in of winter weather inspires many smokers who have been taking their habit outside in deference to smoke-sensitive roommates or family members.
The courtesy loses its appeal once the temperature drops.
The $6-a-pack cost of feeding a cigarette habit also contributes to smokers’ motivation, Irwin said.
“My problem is, I really enjoy smoking,” Merchant said. “But it’s getting so darn expensive now, you can’t afford to do it.” His health is another motivator, of course, but so is the growing pressure from within his family.
“My son and my oldest daughter smoke, but my other daughter is a nurse. She’s constantly on my butt about smoking around her children. When they come over, there’s no smoking anywhere around them,” he said.
Importantly, Merchant’s wife, Julie, will be quitting along with him. They both plan to use the drug Chantix, which blocks the urge to smoke. She, too, has quit before, as recently as last year, when she went six months without lighting up.
Her downfall? Her husband.
“We drove to Michigan and it was a long ride with a smoker in the car,” Julie Merchant said. Despite having gained some weight while she was not smoking, Merchant, a 38-year smoker who suffers from emphysema, said she’s more than ready to try again, this time with Gil on board.
“It’s very important that he’s quitting, too,” she said. “You can’t do it unless everyone in the house is quitting.”
That bit of insight squares with Bonnie Irwin, who touts the services of the Maine Tobacco HelpLine.
“You really have to understand that having a smoker in the house is a trigger for you,” she said. “With your quit plan, you really want to eliminate or lessen your triggers. It’s important to let family and friends know that in order for you to be successful at quitting, you’d like them to be a positive support by not smoking around you.”
Other strategies for success include identifying routine activities that stimulate the urge to light up — enjoying the first cup of morning coffee, starting the drive to work, unwinding with a beer or other alcoholic drink, or relaxing after sex.
The staff at the help line can also help callers identify new ways of dealing with anxiety, anger and stress.
“Many people have always used cigarettes to cope with those feelings,” Irwin said. “But if you have a cigarette when you’re stressed, what you’re actually doing is taking some time to stop and think about the situation. It’s not the cigarette that’s calming you down — you’re calming yourself down.”
For Keith Stuart, of Orrington, the motivation to kick his 27-year smoking habit is both personal and financial. The 41-year-old father of eight smokes about a pack a day and figures giving it up will help him pay off his new Harley-Davidson motorcycle a little sooner.
He also doesn’t like the idea of what smoking is doing to his body.
“I’ve always been kind of an athlete,” he said, but in recent years he has suffered from bronchitis and pneumonia. “I’m getting old,” he said. “My body’s not what it used to be.”
Stuart doesn’t ever smoke around his kids, but his habit remains problematic for his wife, Bridgette, a nonsmoker.
“She hates it,” he said bluntly. “It’s a huge rift in our marriage. We’ve got plenty to worry about without adding that to it.”
Like Gil Merchant, Stuart has tried to quit before, using Chantix and nicotine patches.
“This time around, there’s no patch, no Chantix,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to continue to feed the chemical addiction” to nicotine.
Instead, he said, he’ll be looking to change his behavior — taking his breaks inside instead of stepping outside to smoke, working out at the gym, changing his coffee-drinking routine, and weaning himself off his smoking habit.
Right after Christmas, Stuart said, he would start smoking fewer cigarettes each day.
“With any luck, on New Year’s Eve I’ll be throwing the pack into a bonfire and calling it quits,” he said.
Bonnie Irwin said smokers looking for support and advice for a Jan. 1 quit date should contact the Maine Tobacco HelpLine at 800-207-1230.
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