On my break one sunny day last week, I was on the front steps of our building watching people go by. Some were out meeting friends; others were hurrying to lunch or doing errands. But among those enjoying the sunshine it was a surprise to see, in the space of just a few minutes, two young men searching for cigarette butts on the sidewalk.
One of the men managed to find several butts and smoked one after the other, urgently. The other held up his “prize” to his friend with jubilation, then tucked it away and left. People have told me about times they’ve resorted to smoking butts, but I had never actually seen anyone do it. I felt sad watching this act of desperation.
Why would someone put themselves at risk for serious infections in addition to tobacco-related diseases like cancer, lung and heart disease? Tobacco addiction, poverty and mental illnesses often play a role. Rates of tobacco use and addiction are much higher among the poor and mentally ill.
In fact, in the US, people with mental illnesses consume almost half of the tobacco sold and a recent Canadian study reported smoking rates among the homeless at over 80 per cent. These populations also bear a disproportionate burden of tobacco-related illnesses.
It can be challenging to treat tobacco addiction among people with mental illnesses who also live in poverty. We often mistakenly assume that dealing with tobacco use may be pretty low on the priority list for people struggling to meet their basic needs. However, research shows many of these smokers do want to reduce or quit using tobacco, often motivated by concerns about their health. It is important to remember that, with the right supports, they can achieve this goal. Mental health workers, social service workers, physicians and pharmacists can all play an invaluable role in supporting their efforts.
In B.C. limited finances are now less of a barrier for those who wish to quit smoking. We have free QuitNow Services and financial coverage for nicotine gum or patches and other quit smoking medications through the B.C. Smoking Cessation Program. For more information visit quitnow.ca or speak to your health care professional.
World No Tobacco Day, May 31, was created in 1987 by the World Health Organization, to raise awareness about the global tobacco epidemic. For more information about World No Tobacco Day, visit the WHO website: http://www.who.int/tobacco/wntd/2012/announcement/en/index.html