Washington revives free quitline for smokers

Service for uninsured was eliminated last year

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

Uninsured Washington smokers looking to kick the habit will once again have state-funded assistance to do so.

The Washington State Department of Health has resurrected the tobacco quitline one year after eliminating the free service for those who are uninsured or underinsured.

"A quitline is absolutely necessary," said Tim Church, state health department spokesman. "We were the only state in the nation without a quitline for the uninsured."

For more than 10 years, the telephone support service offered free counseling, informational materials and nicotine replacement therapy for anyone who called. During that time, from November 2000 to June 2011, the quitline served more than 160,000 people, including thousands of Clark County residents.

But last July, as a result of state budget cuts, the health department snuffed out the service for all but those who had private insurance or Medicaid. As of Aug. 1, however, all Washington residents, regardless of insurance status, can once again benefit from calling the toll-free number, 800-QUIT-NOW.

"We are thrilled the quitline is back up and running and available for those who want help quit

ting tobacco," said Theresa Cross, with Clark County Public Health. "For those persons without employer-provided insurance that has quitting benefits, there was very little available while the quitline was down."

In the last year, more than 6,500 people statewide who called the quitline didn't qualify for services. Of those, about 3,500 asked to be notified if the state ever revived the quitline. Operators have already started making calls to those people, Church said.

While health officials are cheering the return of the service, the celebrating may be short-lived. Funding only guarantees the lines will remain open through June 2013.

The health department is using the remaining $1.7 million in the tobacco prevention and control account to reopen the phone line, Church said. The state will also use a portion of a $400,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund the quitline, which costs about $1.9 million to operate each year, Church said.

The CDC funding will also be used to offer a quitline for Asian-language speakers -- Asian men tend to have higher smoking rates -- and advertise the revival of the quitline, Church said. The state will receive another $400,000 from the CDC next year, he said.

Since 2009, state budget cuts have whittled the tobacco prevention program from a $27 million comprehensive set of services to nothing. The quitline, when cut last year, was the final piece of the program eliminated.

"We'd love to be doing more. We'd absolutely love to be doing more," Church said. "But opening this quitline for the uninsured is a big step."