About one in five Americans is a smoker. In the Sooner State that figure is even higher. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 23.7 percent of Oklahomans have a smoking habit, third in the nation behind only West Virginia (26.8 percent) and Kentucky (24.8 percent). It’s a deadly habit that we at the Oklahoma Insurance Department want to help break.

Smoking causes thousands of deaths every year in this state and costs Oklahoma businesses and taxpayers more than $2 billion annually. Tobacco products are highly addictive, and more than 7,000 new users under age 18 begin smoking each year in Oklahoma. As a result, the Oklahoma Insurance Department has launched a strategic partnership with the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center’s College of Public Health to develop, implement and promote tobacco cessation programming as part of the health insurance benefits and coverage being offered by insurers doing business in this state.

The Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline is an effort funded by TSET, the Oklahoma State Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reached by dialing 1-800-QUIT-NOW, the service matches callers who want to quit smoking with a highly trained “Quit Coach” to counsel and motivate the smoker during his or her cessation process. Services are available not only in English, but in Spanish and some other languages, and operators are available from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week.

Since its inception in 2003, the Tobacco Helpline has fielded nearly 150,000 phone calls from Oklahomans who want to kick the habit, family members wanting to help a loved one, and health care providers seeking to improve the quality of life in their communities. The Helpline is available to any tobacco user, at any stage of readiness to quit, to former smokers who need help avoiding a relapse, to friends and relatives of smokers, and to health care providers requiring anti-smoking resources for their patients.

After providing demographic and eligibility information, smokers receive free personalized assistance from their Quit Coach, a professional cessation specialist who helps the caller set a “quit date” and develops a “quit plan” tailored to the individual’s needs. Up to five proactive telephone sessions are provided free of charge for uninsured callers and pregnant smokers receive 10 free calls, but smokers are welcome to call as often as they need. Most callers are eligible to receive free, two-week cessation “starter kits” of either nicotine replacement patches or gum. Callers with insurance (including Medicaid recipients) are then referred to their health plan to obtain additional cessation benefits. Uninsured callers are eligible to receive up to eight weeks of free patches or gum.

Most smokers are well aware of the physical toll of their habit. But as a little extra motivation to quit, here’s a reminder of how smoking harms health.

Cigarette smoking contributes to:

· 91 percent of all bronchitis and emphysema diagnoses.

· 85 percent of all trachea, lung and bronchus cancers.

· 82 percent of all chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) diagnoses.

· 68 percent of all lip, oral cavity and pharynx cancers.

· 40 percent of all ischemic heart disease diagnoses.

· 30 percent of all atherosclerosis diagnoses.

If the many health crises smoking creates aren’t motivation enough, consider the financial cost. At the average price per pack in Oklahoma, smoking one pack per day of name-brand cigarettes costs each smoker more than $1,800 per year. The smoking habit can increase your monthly premiums not only for health insurance, but for insuring your home and car, too. Smokers experience 30 percent higher health care expenses than non-smokers and secondhand smoke raises the cost of health care even for non-smokers if they live with those who do light up. American businesses pay out additional thousands of dollars per year, per smoker on staff, in health insurance contributions and workers’ compensation costs.

If you smoke, now is the time to quit. Within weeks, days, or in some cases just a few hours after puffing that last cigarette, carbon monoxide levels in your blood will decline, your blood pressure will return to normal, and your circulation and breathing will be improved. Better still, those positive effects improve over time. Statistics from the National Cancer Institute suggest that quitting by the age of 30 will reduce your chance of premature death from smoking-related diseases by more than 90 percent, while even those who quit by the age of 50 or 60 can cut their chance of dying early from a smoking-related illness by up to 50 percent.

Crushing tobacco use saves both lives and money. If you want to quit smoking or to help someone kick the habit, call (800) QUIT-NOW (784-8669) or go online to ok.gov/stopswithme. For resources to institute a tobacco-cessation program in your business or community, reach out to OID and TSET at tobaccofree.oid.ok.gov or call TSET Cessation Program Coordinator Amity Ritze at (405) 431-0117.

And as always, to learn more about insurance in Oklahoma, to check the licensing of an agent or company, or to file a complaint about your policy or insurer, visit us online at www.ok.gov/oid/ or call our Consumer Assistance Team at 1-800-522-0071.