Most New Yorkers know you can dial 311 to make a complaint about noise or a bad pothole or whatever might be ticking you off that you think Mayor Bloomberg can solve in a jiffy.
But it turns out you can also dial 311 to quit smoking!
If you do, you’ll be connected to one of about 50 people sitting in a well-lit room at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute up in Buffalo, NY. They’re waiting for your call.
There’s a 15-minute screening process where they ask you if you’ve ever smoked before and if you’ve had a heart attack in the last few weeks. Then you have to decide if you want them to send you a two-week supply of Nicorette gum or some nicotine lozenges.
I got Debbie. That’s not her real name.
Thank you for calling, this is Debbie speaking, how may I help you?
Is there any way I can get the lozenges and the gum?
No, unfortunately we can only send one or the other.
What about counseling for cigarette-related depression?
We’re here for calls; we also have a chat room. If you wanted to actually go somewhere for groups, I can send you a list. We’re here, you can always give us a call if you wanted to talk to someone. About 90 percent of the people here are ex-smokers , so they have their own tips on what helps them. I have a couple of background questions, they are voluntary so you don’t have to answer them, but I have to ask you anyway. Are you of Hispanic or Latino origin?
What do you consider your race to be?
Caucasian, I guess.
How many years of education have you received in your life so far?
I have a master’s degree.
Do you live with any other smokers?
Well that’s good, that’s going to help a lot. We do call back four times, because it’s required by the health department that we get hold of you.
Were you a smoker?
I only smoked for a year and I didn’t really … I like to say that I’m not, but I’ll never touch one again.
You dropped it?
Thankfully, I weaned myself off and just went cold turkey.
Do you have any special ways of weaning yourself off?
I picked up a hobby. That’s honestly the main thing I can tell you. I picked up craft-working. I honestly suggest video games. It sounds weird, but it keeps your mind and your hands busy at the same time. Finding something to put in place of the cigarettes is really what did it. I brushed my teeth a lot, because it tasted bad after, so I didn’t want to smoke, it’s all about pushing back cigarettes. Drinking lots of water and things like that will help and if you really don’t feel like you can push one back you can give us a call.
Just out of curiosity what did you study in college?
Psychology probably helped you to quit smoking.
I took a lot of addiction classes, it was what I really, really liked and I kind of took something from there — even though my addiction professor smoked.
Has he called there yet?
He actually won’t quit, he refuses.
Have you told him about this program?
Oh yes, I mean, he actually knows that I work here. He was like, “Oh yeah, you would do that.” But he just won’t do it, he won’t quit, which I just find crazy. You’re an addiction professor. He says that if he wanted to quit smoking, he’d be able to do it.
You’d think he would at least want the free gum.
Yeah, or give it a try or something.
Has this been really popular?
Yes, especially with the taxes rising lately, it’s been pretty bad, actually. Or good. I honestly think though that if you’re quitting because of money, chances are it might not last so long. But it does force a lot of people to try.
How many people call a day?
Thousands. I actually got curious the other day and typed in Client Number One to see, and that first month we only had about two calls. That was 2006, so it’s been a while. We also go through cycles. During the summer no one really wants to quit smoking, everyone’s outside and doesn’t think about it. Whereas New Year’s resolutions are a big one, and these past two years we’ve had taxes raised right around the same time, somewhere between March and June, so it does get kind of crazy for a while.
Does anyone ever break down on the phone?
Sometimes, not very often. I actually honestly like the moral support calls more than the normal calls. It’s nice to be able to be more helpful than just taking them through an interview.
They’re just wanting to hear that helpful voice?
Wanting someone to talk to, keep them busy for a while, keep their minds off things. And I think people just get frustrated. The average smoker, it does take them about eight to nine times before they’re able to quit smoking, and for people who’ve been smoking 50-60 years it gets hard for them. People just get frustrated because once they have a cigarette, they feel like a failure. I think cigarette addiction is one of the hardest things to get over. With cigarettes you can function while using; whereas with other drugs and alcohol, things like that, you may learn to function but you’re not going to be at a normal level. I think that’s why cigarettes are so hard, because it can just never end.
What’s the weirdest thing anyone’s ever said to you?
I hear a lot of strange things, but nothing too over the top, just when people get off the topic of quitting sometimes and the phone call can go on for half an hour and you’re stuck listening to someone complain about their lives instead of quitting smoking.
I guess it starts off with quitting smoking, but everyone has that reason for having that one cigarette, and that just leads off into many, many things: relationships, jobs, life. I hear a lot of health problems. As long as it gets them through, that’s fine with me.
It sure was nice talking.
It was a pleasure talking to you, good luck quitting, and if you need anything else just give us a call. Have a good one. Bye.
The following afternoon — Thursday, April 16, around 3:30 pm. — I suddenly found myself in the mood for some more moral support. This time, Lisa (not her real name) picked up.
Hi, my name is Lisa, how can I help you?
I am just looking for some helpful conversations, some moral support.
How can I help you?
I had a cigarette earlier today and was thinking about having another one — that’s probably a bad idea.
Let me ask you, have you cut down your cigarette use, or are you quitting and waiting for the gum to arrive?
I’m trying to quit.
How many cigarettes do you normally smoke?
Five to 10.
How many have you cut down by?
I’m just getting started really. Do you have any suggestions of things I could do to take my mind off cigarettes?
Are you calling from home or are you at work right now? There are a lot of different suggestions that we have given to clients or clients have given to us. Are you a gum chewer or anything like that?
I do like gummy candies.
O.K., like gummy bears? Well, gummy bears are actually very low fat, believe it or not, so gummy bears are one really good thing. That’s a definite suggestion, definite suggestion. Also, have you jotted down the reasons why you’ve decided to quit? One thing that you may do to help keep your mind off this is grabbing a sheet of paper or maybe a Post-It note and writing down, first of all, the reasons why you want to try to quit smoking, the reasons why you called us. Also, what positive things you can think of that are going to happen when you stop smoking, when you start using the gum.
[I got disconnected from Lisa. When I called back it was Debbie again!]
I had one cigarette and I’m calling for a little moral support here.
Well, that’s good, one cigarette is not bad at all. Are you having urges or anything?
Did you drink some water? That should help a little bit. Did we talk about brushing your teeth last night? Or even just Listerine — if you have one of those little travel size Listerines. You can just rinse out your mouth, sometimes that helps as well.
What about fashion-wise for the spring? I’ve actually been feeling a little insecure about what to wear with this kind of schizophrenic weather.
I don’t know what to tell you, I’m actually nowhere near you. I’m in Buffalo. I mean, it snowed last week.
You probably read fashion magazines more than I do.
I don’t at all. I have no idea. I’ve never read any.
I feel like quitting smoking is having a slight affect on my confidence overall. I’m sort of short, like Michael Bloomberg. He’s pretty short, isn’t he?
I think so. Actually, I’m pretty sure he is. I don’t know. I’m going to look it up now. He’s 5’6”. This is kind of short. I love Google. I’m kind of obsessed, actually.
That makes me feel better, I’m 5’10” and a half.
That’s not short. My dad’s 5’8″ and I’m 5’1″, so come on!
That makes me feel better. I also associate cigarettes with going to the movies. Do you have any alternate activities I could get into?
They’re trying not to put cigarettes in the movies as much lately, although it depends on your movie choice. I know this is so weird and I’m not a fan of videogames, but a lot of …
Which video games?
I don’t know. Honestly, I would go with the cheapest system you can buy, just because they get so expensive these days. The only ones I’ve ever played are the really old ones, the old Nintendos, things like that. But it once again depends on your taste and interests. Since you aren’t going to be smoking, you’re going to be saving a lot of money, so you can always put it toward a system.
What do people at the call center do to keep themselves busy?
I think I mentioned that I took up scrapbooking. There’s a woman here who makes jewelery. There are a lot of knitters. Most people, when they quit, they start working out, that helps a lot of them. Yoga and just joining a gym.
Does anyone there smoke?
No, I don’t think that’s allowed. I’m pretty sure it’s on the requirements for this job, that you cannot smoke cigarettes. A lot of the people here are ex-smokers and I think that working here helps them quit and it motivates them by having other people call.
Well this has been good so far. The desire to have a cigarette has–
It’s still sort of lingering back there.
Go chug some Gatorade. How much longer are you at work for?
I am at work until 6, so the urge will probably come back. All right, well, I’m going to try to start a scrapbook.
It sounds like a pretty good environment there to quit smoking.
It is, it’s nice here. Since we are on a cancer research facility, which takes up quite a few blocks – and you can’t smoke anywhere near the facility — it’s like a 15-minute walk to go have a cigarette.
Okay, well, I think that’s all for today and I will call back sometime soon.
All right, well, good luck with the rest of your day. Go chug some of that Gatorade.