Kicking the Habit

Duke Health System celebrates 10 years of being tobacco free; employee wellness program offers resources for tobacco users

A timeline of Duke Health's tobacco cessation milestones.

Melissa Wilson knew things were different when she recently took a sip of tea and deemed it too sweet.

Steadily winding down a four-decade smoking habit, the 51-year old was beginning to realize some of the things she’d been missing.

“I can taste again,” said Wilson, a clinical nurse educator at Duke Raleigh Hospital. She’s been without a cigarette for three months. “I can smell again. As a smoker, all those senses get really dulled.”

Duke Health employee Melissa Wilson quit smoking with the help of LIVE FOR LIFE.

Like most quitters, the road she took to this point featured twists. She said this is her fourth attempt at stopping smoking. It’s also her last.

“This is it,” Wilson said. “I can tell, this is it.”

Ten years ago this month, Duke Health System made a similar pronouncement. In 2007, it banned tobacco use in all of its facilities and on all of its grounds. In recognition of the 10-year milestone, LIVE FOR LIFE, Duke’s employee wellness program, will host events on July 14 that are open to all University and Health System employees:

7:30 a.m.: Volunteers are invited to meet outside of Duke Clinic for a cigarette litter clean-up event nearby that’s co-sponsored by Keep Durham Beautiful and Sustainable Duke. Lunch will be provided for volunteers. You can register here.

11 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Multiple booths will be set up at the Duke Farmers Market, offering games and Duke tobacco cessation information and resources.

The celebration comes as Healthy Duke, an initiative that invites Duke community members to work together to build the healthiest organization in the U.S., prepares for a fall launch.

While the focus of the July 14 events will be on a step taken a decade ago, ridding Duke Health of tobacco was a process that reached back much further.

As the director of Duke Employee Occupational Health and Wellness from 1982 to 2012, Dr. George Jackson was there for much of the process. He recalls early successes in the 1980s, such as the removal of cigarette vending machines from waiting rooms and the creation of “Quitting Time,” Duke’s first tobacco cessation program.

In 1989, smoking was banned in health system buildings. In 2007, Duke Health System, along with 13 other hospitals in the state, banned the use of tobacco altogether.

Jackson said the ban was more than just putting a rule in place. It coincided with an increase in the options available to employees who wished to quit smoking.

“The message was smoking cessation is not only important to the smoker’s health, but also the wellbeing of colleagues and visitors,” Jackson said. “The campus of the health system as well as the buildings would be smoke free.”

While the move to ban tobacco use across the health system was a sweeping one, its effects are seen most clearly in personal stories like Melissa Wilson’s.

Wilson first started trying to quit in 2013, when a bout with cervical cancer finally convinced her it was time to stop. She enlisted the help of Diane Dunder, the smoking cessation specialist with LIVE FOR LIFE. Wilson was able to quit for a few weeks here and there, but she always started smoking again.

Stumbles like Wilson’s are expected. Dunder said that on average it takes seven tries for smokers to kick the habit for good.

“There’s a saying that being ready to quit doesn’t mean you’re ready to quit, it means you’re ready to try,” Dunder said. “There are usually many attempts in a person’s history. That’s why we’re poised to help them try again.”

Among its resources, Duke offers employees “Steps to Health Tobacco Cessation,” a 12-month coaching program that involves an initial consultation to develop a quit plan.

With the help of the prescription drug Chantix – part of the cost of which is covered by Duke – and the support of Dunder, Wilson said she’s finally done.

“I can breathe better, I don’t get short of breath as much,” Wilson said. “I just feel better.”

And sometimes, much to her delight, the tea is too sweet.