As health professionals, our students and faculty have been involved in many ways attempting to reduce tobacco utilization.  Our efforts have received a nudge from a couple of unexpected spots.  A state law was recently passed allowing state employers in Texas to charge tobacco users an additional monthly premium, thereby encouraging employees and retirees to live longer, healthier lives by ending their use of tobacco products.

As a result, if you are a Texas A&M University System employee and are a tobacco user (including cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, snuff, dip or any other tobacco-containing product), your monthly insurance premium will go up beginning September 1. The additional charge will be $30 for an employee, $30 for a covered spouse and $30 for one or more covered children who use tobacco products.

In light of this new state law, our tobacco treatment efforts are especially important, such as the tobacco treatment clinic at our Baylor College of Dentistry.

Combining education with patient needs

Since Baylor Tobacco Treatment Services — the only dental tobacco cessation clinic in Texas, to date — opened in 2004, dental hygienist and clinic counselor Elain Benton estimates she’s seen approximately 700 patients, who receive telephone follow-up on a regular basis unless they decline.

The clinic’s services — which were originally geared to help patients of record, faculty, staff and students quit tobacco use at no cost — has grown to include patient referrals from clinicians outside the dental school.

Having the tobacco cessation center conveniently located on the college’s seventh floor offers dual benefits. Patients can receive counseling from Benton — a certified Mayo Clinic tobacco treatment specialist — and students can learn how to approach chairside counseling.

“It’s about meshing education for the students and the needs of the patients,” says Dr. K. Vendrell Rankin, professor and associate chair of public health sciences, and director of the clinic. Rankin gives three formal D2 lectures as part of the curriculum, and Benton gives two dental hygiene student lectures. Rankin’s other two formal lectures are geared toward helping D3s learn motivational interviewing skills. Benton reinforces this technique with students through one-hour role-playing sessions.

Addressing physical cravings and emotional concerns

Services at the cessation clinic are free, but Benton does not distribute medication. Rankin consults with Benton to make recommendations and write prescriptions when indicated, so that the program stays in line with national clinical practice guidelines for treating tobacco use.

Perhaps Benton’s most crucial role is addressing patients’ emotional needs as they start on their quitting journey.

“I’m very respectful of where they are in their quit attempt,” says Benton. “A lot of people make judgments and try to force them to make decisions when they might not be ready. Our clinic doesn’t work that way.”

Rankin, also a certified Mayo tobacco treatment specialist, offers her perspective, gleaned from 15 years of experience in tobacco cessation.

“It’s about helping them to develop their choices,” says Rankin, “and about helping them weigh the pros and cons in order to make the decision for themselves.”

Other Texas A&M Health Science Center tobacco cessation efforts include a program run by College of Medicine students called Stand Tall Against Tobacco (STAT). STAT promotes tobacco prevention by targeting middle school students in an interactive, educational program.

Confirm your status for insurance

For Texas A&M System employees, check your tobacco user status online. It is very important you confirm your status, or you and your covered spouse will be considered tobacco users and charged an additional monthly premium.  If you certify you are non-tobacco user on your health insurance and in reality are a user, you must change your certification status or risk fraud investigation and termination from health insurance.

For those trying to quit, a number of online resources are available, including the American Cancer Society and our Employee Assistance Program.

— Blair Williamson