Stop-smoking efforts reaching out to homeless

Homeless shelters are beginning to look at addressing nicotine addiction. The discussion sounds lot like those that have taken place among treatment centers for the last decade:

Following successful anti-tobacco campaigns geared toward pregnant women, teenagers, African-Americans, Latinos and other groups, homeless people…may be the next target.

Amid broad skepticism, nascent campaigns to get the homeless off cigarettes are bubbling up in Chicago and across the country.

A Humboldt Park shelter is holding regular meetings where the homeless can discuss their addiction to tobacco. In New York City, Zyban and other anti-smoking pills will be distributed over the next few months at homeless shelters, where 6,000 workers also will be trained in tobacco physiology. Nicotine patches have been offered at shelters in Seattle since last fall and are on the way to others in Wisconsin.

Even cessation proponents acknowledge that small gains will be seen as a victory, considering that 80 percent of the chronically homeless are addicted to smoking.

The goal, experts say, is to change the culture in shelters and possibly save millions each year in Medicaid payments for smoking-related illnesses.

Increasingly, the homeless themselves are pushing the subject. At Humboldt Park Social Services, which operates in one of the Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, residents sit around a folding table during regular meetings to discuss tobacco.

“We started talking about what can kill you, talking about AIDS and STDs, but they didn’t want to hear that anymore. . . . Our clients were tired of it,” said Noemi Avelar, director of operations. “They wanted to talk about smoking. They said this is what we do every day, so let’s take a look at it.”

Addressing addictions to heroin, cocaine and marijuana remain priorities, but tobacco use will be added to the list beginning this year, said Avelar.

So far, few shelters have jumped on the anti-smoking wagon. Most cite higher priorities among their clients, including serious psychological problems or addictions to alcohol, heroin, methamphetamines and crack.

…”We have more people addicted to nicotine than heroin, and the cigarettes can be harder to quit,” Harden said. “We’d love to address smoking along the way, but right now there isn’t much out there that would do much good.”

The executive director of Aurora’s only permanent emergency shelter said tobacco addiction is a very low priority.

“I hate tobacco, but there are a lot more serious issues I have to deal with, starting with funding,” said Ryan Dowd of Hesed House. “Sure, smoking is bad and causes all sorts of health problems. So does sleeping outside and not having anything to eat.”

Randal Syverson, 56, a resident at Hesed House, was openly skeptical of cessation programs.

“No house, no job, no family–a cigarette can be the only joy I’ll have today,” he said.

I understand the reluctance of the program staff. Locally, they’re underfunded and overwhelmed with the number of clients and the broad scope of their problems. An all out push toward smoking cessation doesn’t fit neatly within their mission and their clients are clearly facing larger barriers to achieving stable housing. However, shelters perform all sorts of secondary public health functions and they can at least begin to change the culture among the homeless and in shelters–from one that celebrates tobacco to one that tolerates tobacco.

At the very least, providers should begin asking clients if they want to quit, said Janet Porter, program director for the National Network on Tobacco Prevention and Poverty.

“I think we’ve all been surprised by the number of the homeless who say, `yes,'” Porter said.

…”What’s good for someone working at a big upscale law firm is just as good for people living in the street,” said Roger Valdez, manager of the county’s tobacco-prevention program. “Everyone deserves clean water, air and the same chance to beat this addiction.”

One thought on “Stop-smoking efforts reaching out to homeless

  1. It is difficult to assess exactly how much of the tobacco addiction disparity experienced by homeless people is because of lack of access to treatment, but it is certainly part of the equation. So the norm change is not just from celebrating tobacco to tolerating it, it is more importantly from ignoring treatment for homeless people to promoting it. The few studies that have looked at the characteristics of smoking among homeless people have found that the portion that want to quit, and even want to try in the next 30 days, is only slight lower than the general population. That indicates that access to proven treatments will have a big impact.

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