The Pro

Stubbing out the butt takes time

It takes smokers an average of six to seven attempts before they successfully quit smoking, says Ms Anwar Sultana Abdul Latiff.
It takes smokers an average of six to seven attempts before they successfully quit smoking, says Ms Anwar Sultana Abdul Latiff.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Quit Adviser Anwar Sultana Abdul Latiff explains to Joan Chew why smokers overestimate their ability to quit the habit.

Q I specialise in helping people quit smoking because...

A I have the passion to help others and I have had the experience of taking care of my late father, who was a smoker.

Even after he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he would steal a puff behind my back.

  • Bio Box


    Age: 60

    Occupation: Assistant head of nursing at the Health Promotion Board

    Ms Sultana joined the Ministry of Health in 1993 to help set up HealthLine. The toll-free telephone service allows experienced nurse advisers to provide health information on topics such as chronic diseases, nutrition, exercise and weight management.

    A trained nurse herself, Ms Sultana was also at the 1999 launch of QuitLine, another toll-free telephone service, which aims to help smokers kick the habit. It also provides family and friends with information to help them support the smoker's efforts to stub out.

    Ms Sultana is now in charge of the HealthLine call centre, which QuitLine is a part of. Some smokers interested in quitting call in of their own accord. Others indicated their interest in receiving follow-up calls, or were referred by hospitals.

    Ms Sultana described her role as helping to guide and support those who want to quit smoking, but she never "takes the wheel".

    She helped her late father to give up the habit too.

    Her husband is a 62-year-old retiree. They have a son aged 22.

I saw how hard it was for him to quit. He was breathless, had a poor appetite and had to depend on my mother to carry out activities of daily living.

He managed to quit for eight months.

Q Breaking a smoking habit is difficult because...

A Smoking is both physically and mentally addictive.

Over the years, smokers learn to associate all aspects of the habit - such as carrying the packet, playing with their lighter, pulling a cigarette out of the packet, the hand-to-mouth action of smoking - with certain activities.

Engaging in any of these actions, or simply thinking about them, can trigger an urge to light up.

Nicotine reaches the brain within 10 seconds of being inhaled, causing the smoker to become addicted to it in the long term.

Q One little-known fact about smoking is...

A The longer one smokes, the harder it is to quit.

Some smokers may think that they can quit any time if they want to, but they do not realise that their addiction becomes stronger over time.

Q WhatI do is like being...

A The cocoon enveloping the larvae of many insects, which are the smokers.

The knowledge that I impart to others, as well as the encouragement I provide, plays a role in supporting smokers who have embarked on the challenging journey to quit smoking.

Each step of the way, I strive to build their confidence and provide the assurance that I am there with them.

Q A typical day for me starts...

A At 6am with my first prayer.

Work begins at 8.30am with a roll call to update staff on the latest news and upcoming programmes by the Health Promotion Board.

Within our team, each person is allocated several smokers with whom we follow up by making phone calls.

We also share any challenging cases that we have encountered.

I speak to about 10 to 12 smokers, spending 10 to 15 minutes with each, though this can stretch to half an hour if the smoker has other issues to discuss with me.

I am also responsible for managing the call centre, and implementing and reviewing processes.

Q I come across all types of cases...

A From teenagers to the elderly who are in their 80s. These people want to quit for various reasons: health, children, fitness, and to save money.

I remember a client who resolved to break the habit as his wife was expecting their first child.

He had failed many times but, with our help, he was able to gradually wean himself off cigarettes. I even provided health advice to his then pregnant wife. He later sent me a photo of their newborn.

This client would call me once in a while even after he had successfully quit smoking.

This illustrates the importance of building rapport with clients, and developing that personal relationship provides opportunities for us to provide holistic health advice, beyond that on smoking cessation.

Q I love clients who...

A Have a never-give-up attitude. Even if they failed to meet their targets, they continue to persevere.

Q When a client sounds annoyed on the phone...

A My philosophy is to let him have his say and to remind myself that he is not angry with me, but with the situation that he is in.

So far, it has worked for me.

Q Things that put a smile on my face are...

A When a smoker makes progress in one of the following ways:

•From being a pre-contemplator (someone who has not thought about quitting) to a contemplator (a daily smoker who wishes to quit in the next six months).

•Reduces his smoking habit, even by one cigarette.

I am also heartened when smokers express willingness to work harder towards a target.

Q It breaks my heart when...

A Smokers who initially wanted help from QuitLine end up declining our calls, as this could mean they have changed their mind about quitting. It is important to give smokers who are not ready to quit some space.

I will assure them that when they are ready to quit, help is a phone call away.

I will ask them if we could keep in touch from time to time to know how they are doing.

They either agree to it or say that they will call me when they feel it is the right time to start on their quit journey.

Q My best tip for smokers wanting to quit...

A Never give up.

It takes smokers an average of six to seven attempts before they successfully quit smoking.

Learn what your smoking triggers are and persist in achieving your goal of a smoke-free lifestyle.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Stubbing out the butt takes time'. Print Edition | Subscribe