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Cold turkey

Many smokers vow to quit in January as part of their New Year's resolutions to be healthier. But all of the winter months can provide incentive to kick the habit as smokers huddle outside, feeling miserable on their smoke breaks.

In Oregon, cigarette sales in February fall by 28 percent from their peak, making it the month with the fewest cigarettes sold. January comes in second among months with low sales, according to research published in the international journal Tobacco Control.

Cigarette sales peak in Oregon in June and August, researchers found.

The weather effect is even more pronounced in Alaska, where residents face bone-chilling, frostbite-inducing winters. Cigarette sales there fall by 56 percent in February from their peak. November has the second-lowest sales. Alaskans smoke the most in July, followed by August.

The weather effect reverses in Arizona, which has mild winters and an influx of snowbirds seeking refuge from the cold weather in northern states. Cigarette sales spike by 23 percent in January, with October ranking second for most cigarette sales.

Arizona is the only state that records its highest cigarette sales during a winter month, data show. Cigarette sales are at their lowest in February and March in Arizona, researchers found.

Mark Harris, who hosts a Medford quit smoking support group that is open to the public, said he sees more people trying to quit in the winter.

"Of course, the first of the year always has a surge from people who've made a New Year's resolution and are motivated to be healthy," he said. "But also, smoking has been pushed outdoors, so it's pretty inconvenient in the winter. Smoking constricts the capillaries in the hands and feet, so you're actually colder. If you're smoking, you're also more susceptible to colds and the flu. The body's regular defenses from the immune system are working full-time to counter the effects of smoking. There's not a lot left over."

For smokers tired of lighting up in the Oregon drizzle, plenty of help is available.

Harris' drop-in quit smoking support group meets from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays in Room 2192 of the Jackson County Health and Human Services Building, 140 S. Holly St., Medford. The group sponsored by AllCare Health welcomes all ages.

AllCare Health and Jackson Care Connect manage care for local people on the Oregon Health Plan, which covers quit-smoking aids such as nicotine-replacement patches, gum and lozenges, as well as prescription medications such as Chantix.

Chantix activates nicotine receptors in the brain, giving smokers mild nicotine-like effects and easing withdrawal symptoms. At the same time, it helps block nicotine from attaching to the receptors if smokers backslide and light up.

"Nicotine is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a release of adrenaline. People get a rush of pleasure and energy from nicotine. But they are not long-lasting effects," Harris said, noting that it doesn't take long before a person has a craving for another cigarette.

Like the Oregon Health Plan, which covers 1 in 3 Jackson County residents, many insurance companies also cover quit-smoking aids.

"The health care costs associated with smoking are huge. Carriers are very, very motivated to help people quit smoking," Harris said.

People who can't attend the lunchtime support group can call the Oregon Tobacco Quit Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Coaches offer tips and help callers make plans to quit. Information is also available online at www.quitnow.net/Oregon.

Harris said interactive apps such as Livestrong's "My Quit Coach," "Quit Smoking: Cessation Nation" and "Craving to Quit" offer fun, engaging help to stop smoking.

Plan to Quit

Harris said the first step in a quit-smoking effort is to find a reason to give up the habit.

Many people want to quit because of the health consequences.

"We need to look honestly at the health costs. We tend to fool ourselves about the amount of damage it actually does," said Harris, a former smoker. "For me, it was a matter of being honest with myself and looking at the health cost and the horrible damage it does and deciding it didn't make sense for my life and lifestyle. You've got to find your own reasons to quit. Everyone knows they should quit."

Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, he pointed out.

In Jackson County, 29,500 of the county's 162,310 adults smoke cigarettes regularly, according to the latest Oregon Health Authority data from 2014.

Among current adult smokers, 8,634 in Jackson County already have developed a serious illness caused by tobacco. In one year, the county will log 442 tobacco-related deaths, OHA data show.

Smoking causes $88.1 million in tobacco-related medical care — or $427 each year for every man, woman and child in the county, according to OHA data.

Planning ahead can help people quit.

Harris recommends getting rid of ashtrays, resolving not to smoke in the car and laundering clothes so they don't smell like stale smoke. Because smoking damages people's sense of smell and taste, they gradually will become more sensitive to lingering smoke odors once they stop.

Tell supportive family members or friends that you plan to quit, and enlist someone to help, preferably a nonsmoker, he said.

"Say, 'I'm quitting smoking. Can you please help me be accountable?' " Harris suggested. "For those who are asked to help someone quit, be positive and encouraging. Say, 'I notice you're smoking less. I'm really proud of you.' "

If possible, team up with a quit buddy you can call or text when urges strike. Or stay occupied using a quit-smoking app on your phone, he said.

While some people quit cold turkey, Harris recommends tapering off cigarettes to reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Adopt new habits

On the first day, plan to stay busy with enjoyable activities and spend time around other people to fend off boredom and stress — the biggest triggers for smoking, Harris said.

Substitute smoking with healthy habits.

"It's challenging to leave a void. Instead of a pack of cigarettes, you can carry a survival kit. Carrot sticks are great. There's no unwanted weight gain, they mimic the size and shape of cigarettes and eating them is a substitute for the hand-to-mouth action of smoking," he said.

Celery sticks, hard candy and cinnamon-flavored toothpicks are also good substitutes.

"A cigarette tastes horrible after cinnamon," said Harris, who hands out flavored toothpicks at the weekly support group meetings.

Instead of standing outside smoking, take a walk around the block, he urged.

"Replace the bad habit with a good, healthy habit," Harris said.

Exercise is especially helpful as people deal with the loss of the adrenaline surge that comes from nicotine.

Exercise releases endorphins — feel-good chemicals that ease perceptions of pain, induce a sense of well-being and trigger a sense of euphoria sometimes referred to as a runner's high, according to sports and exercise psychologists.

People should reward themselves on the journey to becoming ex-smokers, Harris said.

"Sometimes I'll have people take that $5 a day they were spending on a pack of cigarettes and put it in their nonsmoking jar. At the end of the month, you have a nice bit of cash. Go out and treat yourself," he said.

Harris said people shouldn't give up if they backslide and smoke a cigarette. Most smokers have to try many times before they finally kick the habit.

"Don't be discouraged by a setback. Use it as a learning tool," he said. "How did you feel after a slip? Did you even enjoy it? A lot of people will say, 'I felt terrible about myself and I didn't even enjoy it.' Don't be hard on yourself about setbacks. Expect them to happen. Just remember, with all the information about the health risks and the damage smoking does, can you really justify smoking anymore?"

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

[Mail Tribune Photo Illustration / Jamie Lusch]