Become an Ex-Smoker - Interview with Dr. Cheryl Healton

Marcelina Hardy, MSEd, BCC
Dr. Cheryl Healton; image used with permission.
Dr. Cheryl Healton

If you've tried to quit smoking before, you know how difficult it can be to kick the habit. Luckily, new ways to quit smoking can help individuals just like you to finally be nicotine free. Even if you haven't tried to quit before, you might want to try a way a less conventional method that could increase your chances of quitting for good the first time.

Expert Dr. Cheryl Healton on BecomeAnEx.org

LoveToKnow had the opportunity to interview Dr. Cheryl G. Healton, CEO of Legacy and founder of BecomeAnEx.org. She understands first-hand the power of tobacco addiction. Dr. Healton has taken her passion for smoking cessation to head up a national coalition of public and private organizations. She also was the first to launch the initial smoking cessation campaign – National Alliance for Tobacco Cessation. Dr. Healton has appeared on ABC's Good Morning America, CNN's Larry King Live, NBC's Today, MCNBC's Hardball with Chris Mathews, National Public Radio and more.

Using a Website to Quit Smoking

LoveToKnow (LTK): What was the inspiration for BecomeAnEX.org?

Dr. Cheryl Healton (CH): Most smokers know why they should quit, but they don’t know the best ways to quit effectively. In fact, it takes most smokers 8-11 times trying to quit before they actually quit for good.

In 2006-07, Legacy, the national public health foundation best known for its truth® youth-smoking prevention campaign, pilot tested EX® in four markets throughout the country: Buffalo, NY; San Antonio, TX; Grand Rapids, MI.; and Baltimore, MD. We aimed to build a quit program that educated smokers about the best way to quit, and provided a free online plan to help smokers quit smoking successfully. Due to the successful pilot program in 2007, Legacy brought together several national organizations and several states to form the NATC (National Alliance for Tobacco Cessation) and launched EX nationally in March 2008..

LTK: How does your approach of helping smokers quit differ from other approaches?

CH: EX is more than an advertising campaign -- it provides evidence-based tools to help smokers quit, including information that can help them prepare for a quit attempt by:

  1. “Re-learning” their thinking on the behavioral aspects of smoking and how different smoking triggers can be overcome with practice and preparation
  2. “Re-learning” their knowledge of addiction and how medications can increase their chances for quitting success
  3. “Re-learning” their ideas of how support from friends and family members can play a critical role in quitting

Since social support is so important, EX uses a comprehensive website as a convening point for smokers who want to quit, as well as those who want to collaborate on their successes and challenges throughout the difficult quit process. Since March 2008, when the program first debuted, more than one million people have visited the site and more than 14,000 smokers have joined the online community. Within that online community, more than 300 customized support groups have been formed, linking together people with common ties or interests. EX tools were designed in collaboration with Mayo Clinic and with input from former and current smokers who have lived with the struggle to quit. Having such feedback from smokers fighting their addictions provides EX with a realistic approach based on evidence-based research.

LTK: How easy is the website to use?

CH: The website is very easy to use. As a standard practice, we conduct research called usability testing. When doing usability testing for a website, we observe how smokers use the website to discover any errors or places where the site functionality and ease of use can be improved upon. The website design was recently refreshed to make navigating the site even easier. All EX content is organized into the three re-learn categories described above. In addition, we also include information on staying smoke-free and handling relapses.

LTK: How long does it typically take someone to be completely cigarette-free using your website?

CH: It differs for everyone; we encourage smokers to select a quit date that fits their particular needs. We also encourage people to take time to prepare themselves before they actually stop smoking on their quit day. For instance, for re-learning how to handle their smoking triggers, like coffee or driving or dealing with stress without cigarettes – smokers need to plan for that in advance by already identifying their triggers, thinking about a substitute behavior other than smoking, and practicing separating their triggers from smoking. That way, when they smoke their last cigarettes, they’ll have a better idea of what they’ll need to do to stay smoke-free permanently.

LTK: How does the site help former smokers from starting again?

CH: Part of the free quit plan is to have a good support system. EX offers an online community with people in different stages of quitting – those that are actively trying to quit, those that have been smoke-free for a while, and those that are having an urge to relapse. There is also a lot of information on the website that helps a user remain smoke-free.

LTK: What other supports do you provide on your website?

CH: Aside from the free quit plan, EX offers information like how to keep weight off when quitting and other ways to relieve stress other than smoking. We also offer links to other quit smoking resources such as 1-800-QUIT-NOW and state/local offerings.

Success Story

LTK: Do you have any success stories to share about people who have used your site to quit smoking?

CH: Jason Meza has been an EX-smoker since December 12, 2005. Jason, a radio executive in the San Antonio area, became a smoker right after high school when he began his first job at a radio station. He smoked close to a pack a day until his girlfriend (now wife) gave him an ultimatum to quit. Her mother had died of breast cancer, and she told him that she couldn’t bear to be with anyone who was tempting fate and risking cancer by smoking. Jason had tried quitting cold turkey before, but he was never able to stay smoke-free for long – until he found EX. Through the EX program, he had the tools he needed to stop smoking for good and a community of people who can relate to his experience of quitting cigarettes. Now, he tries to help others in their attempts to quit via the EX community online.

Additional Information

LTK: Dr. Healton, thank you for participating in this interview. Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your website?

CH: The site is also available in Spanish and on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Smokers can also use EX on the go via their mobile phones. We recently released an iPhone app which can be found online in the iTunes store, so there are many ways smokers can connect in order to quit the habit for good.

Editor's note: Always consult your physician when planning to begin any smoking cessation program.

Become an Ex-Smoker - Interview with Dr. Cheryl Healton