After the largest federal tobacco tax increase in history went into effect this month, Pharmacist Scott Brewer of Family Pharmacy in Rockingham said more customers were bringing in prescriptions for a new cessation drug - rather than forking over 62 cents more per pack.
“Over the last two or three months, probably in anticipation of the increase, some people went ahead and made the change,” Brewer said. “After the tax hit, we saw more people.”
According to Brewer, those smokers made the change to Chantix - a prescription medication designed to help adults stop smoking by blocking nicotine receptors in the brain.
“It decreases the desire to smoke because you don’t get the ‘rush,’” Brewer said.
Pharmacist Lynn McCaskill of Ellerbe Pharmacy said Chantix is the best smoking deterrent to come out in his 43 years in pharmacy.
According to McCaskill, he’s seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in the purchase of Chantix “starter packs” over the past few weeks. Starter packs are initial one-month supplies that gradually increase the medication level in a smoker’s system, and can then be followed by supplemental monthly supplies.
“A lot of people are able to quit after the first starter pack,” McCaskill said. “A few people have to go for a second month; I’ve only had one person go a third month.”
If you’re paying out of pocket, a Chantix starter pack costs $126 at Family Pharmacy.
“It’s unfortunate, because some insurance plans cover (Chantix) and some don’t,” said Brewer, “But if you have a decent smoking habit, you end up saving a lot of money in the long run.”
McCaskill said there’s one crucial hurdle to get past before a prescription for Chantix can translate to success.
“They have to want to quit,” McCaskill said. “I quit several times before I finally quit for good.”
At QuitlineNC, the free, statewide cessation assistance hotline funded by the North Carolina Health and Wellness Trust Fund, officials say pricier cigarettes have helped keep their lines busy.
“We did see a call volume increase of up to 52 percent starting in February and going into March and April,” said Joyce Swetlick, director of tobacco cessation with the Tobacco and Control Branch of the North Carolina Division of Public Health, which runs the hotline. “Some of that can be attributed to increased television ads. But when the ads were discontinued, the increase remained.”
Quitline connects callers with specially-trained “quit coaches” who offer one-on-one support seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.
“My impression is that the cost of cigarettes started to rise due to the fact that the tobacco industry had raised their prices starting in March,” Swetlick said. “So I think that probably had something to do with it; then there was the anticipation that costs would increase (because of the tax).”
However, Swetlick said calls to the hotline from Richmond County had remained at the same level: Five calls in February and five calls in March. Statistics for April were not yet available.
According to Amy Hamilton, outreach manager with FirstHealth of the Carolinas, call volume for FirstHealth’s FirstQuit smoking cessation program has increased as of late.
We’ve had a lot more people calling to ask about the (FirstQuit) class, and what I’ve seen over the last month or two is that people do mention cost more,” said Hamilton. “Aside from the personal, social and health reasons (for quitting smoking), the cost is adding another piece to it. It’s kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
At Richmond Community College, Director of Enrollment Management Daphne Stancil said students have access to cessation classes for a nominal fee through the college’s partnership with FirstHealth, and under the auspices of a grant from the same trust fund that makes QuitlineNC possible.
“The class includes all cessation supplies,” Stancil said. “Depending on the student’s assessment, that can be anything from patches to counseling to gum, etc.”
Beginning on January 1, 2010, all RCC sites, including parking lots, will become tobacco-free, according to Stancil, and the school is currently preparing to host the Sandhills Tobacco-Free Summit on May 1.
So far, she said increased tobacco prices hasn’t changed the enrollment in cessation classes, but that enrollment has remained “pretty steady.”
“The use of tobacco is definitely a personal choice,” Stancil said.
Indeed, at FirstHealth Family Care Center in Ellerbe, Licensed Practical Nurse Cathy Cloninger said she has yet to see an increase in people looking to kick the habit.
“We get one or two calls a week (regarding smoking cessation), but that’s about normal,” said Cloninger.
“We haven’t really seen a difference with smokers since the tax increase on cigarettes,” said Will Smith, emergency room manager at Sandhills Regional Medical Center in Hamlet. “We always have smokers come through our ER with general complaints of coughing, shortness of breath and other respiratory-related illnesses.”
According to Hamilton, the alleviation of tobacco-related health problems is a cessation benefit that’s easy to see. Now, some of her clients are also finding creative ways to visualize the money they have saved by cutting back or quitting for good.
“They’re taking that money and putting it aside, oftentimes they put it somewhere they can see it,” said Hamilton. “One patient actually calls it her ‘squirrel money.’ When she feels stressed or wants to smoke, and needs support, she can actually look at the money and think of all the things she can do with it. And as we know, in today’s economy, every dollar helps every family.”
For more information about QuitlineNC, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669). For more information about the FirstQuit program, contact Amy Hamilton at 417-3735.