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More NYC firefighters smoke since 9/11

New program helps them kick the habit

By Gina Greene

(CNN) -- Most former smokers can tell you they have triggers that push them back to the habit. Triggers can range from eating a big meal or having a few drinks to stress and depression.

Health problems linger for 9/11 firefighters 

Emotions resulting from the terrorist attacks September 11 of last year proved to be a formidable trigger for many New York City firefighters.

That's what fire department officials concluded after a survey found that 23 percent of firefighters who had kicked cigarettes in the past picked them up again in the past year.

To make matters worse, 29 percent of firefighters who already smoked started smoking more.

Despair, disappointment, sadness, helplessness and exhaustion were some of the emotions Bill Donohue used to describe the weeks he spent combing through rubble left by the World Trade Center collapse.

Those same emotions motivated him to pick up his first cigarette in 13 years on September 11.

"The last thing I cared about was myself or my health and cigarettes were something to comfort me at the time," Donohue said.

But as the amount he smoked rose to sometimes three packs a day, so did the disappointment in the eyes of his seven children.

"That was tough to take," he said. So tough, in fact, that it led Donohue to Tobacco Free with the FDNY, a new program started in response to the increase in smoking among the ranks.

Dr. David Prezant, FDNY's deputy chief medical officer, recruited smoking cessation expert Matthew Bars to put the program in place for firefighters, EMS workers and their spouses.

Bars, who runs Smoking Consultation Service in Fort Lee, New Jersey, helps a wide range of smokers kick the habit, but said firefighters have extra incentive.

"If you're not as tired when you get to the job, if you can move fast because you have better exercise tolerance, if your reaction time is better, that's literally a matter of life and death," Bars said.

Roughly 300 members of the department agreed and signed up for the voluntary program after seeing posters in firehouses and EMS stations.

Bars provides "all the tools and support that are need to help smokers become ex-smokers," he said.

That includes various forms of nicotine replacement products donated by their maker, Pharmacia. Other medications shown to aid in smoking cessation -- such as Zyban and Bupropion -- also are provided. Participants go through a medical evaluation and follow-up as well.

On the behavioral front, there's a personalized e-mail component with tips, information and motivation. And, of course, there are support groups. "In fact, I'm, for a lack of a better word, the emcee," Bars said.

The program began in late July with a grant from the CHEST Foundation, part of the American College of Chest Physicians.

Bars is pleased with its progress, although it's too soon to measure success rates. But "word of mouth is spreading" and they hope to eventually help all 2,000 smokers in the department, he said.

Donohue stopped smoking more than a month ago and is trying to get the word out as well.

"I wasn't myself at that time," he said. "It was foolish."




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