Sound Health: McLean County sets smoking rate goal of 5%

Seventeen percent of McLean County residents report they smoke, according to the county’s 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment.

The McLean County Health Department (MCHD) has a goal to reduce that to 5% by 2030.

Thursday is the Great American Smokeout, a day designed to bring awareness to how difficult it is to quit — and to promote available resources to help you do just that.

Health officials say it’s an annual challenge to quit smoking just for that day, and to learn about the difficulties associated with quitting, the help that is available while quitting, and the health benefits realized after cutting cigarettes out of your life.

Nicotine is a chemical as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

Jessica McKnight portrait

MCHD administrator Jessica McKnight, a former smoker herself, acknowledges how difficult it can be to kick the smoking habit.

“It’s very personal, your reasons for smoking and also wanting to quit. I doubt that we could talk to any smoker and they would argue with us whether or not smoking is unhealthy,” McKnight said.

McKnight knows that just telling every smoker that cigarettes are bad is not an option, and that understanding why somebody smokes is an important first step.

She said people smoke for different reasons, like stress relief or in a social situation where a friend pressures you into taking a drag. Eliminating those triggers and being able to withstand the cravings is important.

“Understanding why you smoke, what are those reasons you have, those times and situations when you instinctively turn to smoking, learning more about why you smoke can help you then make a plan, and in that process of quitting, what are you going to do instead of smoking.”

McKnight said products like nicotine gum or patches can help satiate cravings and keep the smoke out of your lungs, as well as avoiding triggers that you know lead to smoking in your day-to-day life. Replacing the stimulus of a cigarette with something else like chewing gum, or even more creatively, writing a goodbye letter to every cigarette you don’t let yourself smoke for a few days is important — anything to distract from the missing nicotine and make the quitting process easier.

Smoking can lead to various negative health effects that are often discussed when trying to convince people to quit, such as various cancers or respiratory disorders, but McKnight said what’s talked about less is the positive benefits of quitting — like less coughing, clearer breathing, improved dental hygiene, and improved sleep.

Ask McKnight if she notices an improvement, and she’ll tell you how much better she feels on a consistent basis, and her progress toward running a half-marathon that she feels is possible in part by cutting a negative like smoking out of her life.

Trying to help someone else quit can be draining, too, because smokers suffering from withdrawal can be irritable, angry, and generally unpleasant. But offering support and understanding of how difficult the process is can be difficult without being a smoker yourself.

“Your body very quickly starts repairing itself, and it doesn’t take very long to start noticing those positive effects of changing and quitting smoking,” said McKnight, adding it’s important to remain patient and caring to others who are trying to kick the habit.

McKnight noted there are resources available to help smokers figure out why they smoke, how they can avoid it, and how to eventually stop entirely. She recommends talking to your primary health practitioner, visiting the health department’s website, or calling the nicotine quitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

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