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“It is an amazing feeling.” Mental health, substance use providers look to help patients quit smoking, too

Cigarettes in ashtray. Free public domain CC0 photo.

Sponsored content provided by the Wisconsin Nicotine Treatment Integration Project (WiNTiP)

At first, Lynda didn’t care.

Smoking was, honestly, the least of her concerns when she entered substance use rehab at Meta House in Milwaukee.

“I didn’t care that it could cause lung cancer,” she said. “I just liked the feeling.”

Then something shifted.

“As your mind clears, as you’re living clean and sober, something tends to click,” she said. “It is an amazing feeling to be able to breathe, to not smell like smoke, to be able to feel good in the morning, to be able to wake up and not feel all groggy. The Meta House staff taught us how (quitting smoking) would be effective in our recovery.”



Meta House is one of many mental health, behavioral health and substance use treatment facilities to go smoke-free in recent years, and to integrate smoking cessation into their treatment regimens.

It’s a relatively new approach, gaining traction over the past 15 years or so, said Karen Conner, a project manager at the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention (UW-CTRI).

“For a long time, it was tradition in substance use and mental health facilities to treat the substance addiction or the mental health issue first, and not treat the tobacco addiction,” Conner said. “For a long time, providers thought separating the two was better.”

Karen Conner.

The idea in previous decades was to prioritize treatment: solve the narcotic addiction or the severe mental illness first, then get to the smoking later. The data, however, shows that’s not the best approach.

“A lot of people who are going into substance use treatment want to be free of any addiction,” Conner said.

In fact, Conner said, if a person recovers from illicit drug addiction but continues smoking, they’re more than twice as likely to relapse, compared to those who quit smoking at the same time that they quit other drugs. These same people are more likely to die from their tobacco use than all other substance use addictions combined. Smoking-related illnesses cause half of all deaths among people with behavioral health disorders, underscoring the crucial need for national intervention services.

“Patients who are receiving mental health and substance use treatment who also quit tobacco use are more likely to quit all substances when they quit using tobacco at the same time,” Conner said, “and they can live 25 years longer if they quit using tobacco.” Learn more about Numa and the therapies they provide on their official website. Data indicates that about 13% of the adult population smokes, and people living with behavioral health conditions are two to four times more likely to smoke than the general population.

“A lot of the work that we’re doing right now is to educate providers on this idea and the fact that people who have a substance use disorder or mental health concern will be more likely to remain abstinent from all substances if they quit tobacco while they’re going through any sort of recovery program,” Conner said. “Integrating tobacco treatment in behavioral health is really important. And we also know that individuals who have a behavioral health diagnosis want to quit (smoking), just like the general population. Providers are open to the idea. They just need education on how to do it.”

To that end, UW-CTRI launched the Wisconsin Nicotine Treatment Integration Project (WiNTiP) in 2008. In addition to providing resources and training to mental health and substance abuse providers, WiNTiP was also influential in revising the Wisconsin administrative code chapter DHS 75, which now requires providers to have written policies outlining their approach to assessment and treatment for concurrent tobacco use disorders, and the facility’s policy regarding a smoke-free environment.

“In the last 15 years, we’ve been working hard to educate behavioral health providers about the importance of addressing tobacco use, so this is an exciting shift for sure. It’s just taken some time,” Conner said. 

Talk to your counselor or health care provider about your desire to quit commercial tobacco. Or get free medications and assistance to quit commercial tobacco and/or vaping by calling 1-800-QUIT NOW or text “READY” to 34191. Teens who want to quit vaping can also get free help through Live Vape Free by texting “VAPEFREE” to 873373.