Dear Savvy Senior: I understand that COVID-19 hits smokers a lot harder than nonsmokers, but quitting at my age is very difficult. Does Medicare offer any coverage that helps beneficiaries quit smoking? — Must Quit
Dear Must: It’s true. Smokers and vapers have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 infection as the coronavirus attacks the lungs. That’s why quitting now is more important than ever before.
If you are a Medicare beneficiary, you’ll be happy to know that Medicare Part B covers up to eight face-to-face counseling sessions a year to help you quit smoking. And, if you have a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, certain smoking-cessation medications are covered too. Here are some other tips that can help you kick the habit.
It’s never too late
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.5% of Medicare beneficiaries smoke. Many older smokers, like yourself, indicate that they would like to quit, but because of the nicotine, which is extremely addictive, it’s very difficult to do.
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable illness, responsible for an estimated one-fifth of deaths in the United States each year.
But research shows that quitting, even after age 65, greatly reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis and many other diseases, including COVID-19. It also helps you breathe easier, smell and taste food better, not to mention saves you quite a bit of money. A $6 pack-a-day smoker, for example, saves about $180 after one month without cigarettes, and nearly $2,200 after one year.
How to quit
The first step you need to take is to set a “quit date,” but give yourself a few weeks to get ready. During that time, you may want to start by reducing the number or the strength of cigarettes you smoke to begin weaning yourself.
Also check out over-the-counter nicotine replacement products — patches, gum and lozenges — to help curb your cravings (these are not covered by Medicare). And just prior to your quit day get rid of all cigarettes and ashtrays in your home, car and place of work, and try to clean up and even spray air freshener. The smell of smoke can be a powerful trigger.
Studies have shown that you have a much better chance of quitting if you have help. So, tell your friends, family and coworkers of your plan to quit. Others knowing can be a helpful reminder and motivator.
Then get some counseling. Don’t go it alone. Start by contacting your doctor about smoking cessation counseling covered by Medicare and find out about the prescription antismoking drugs that can help reduce your nicotine craving.
You can also get free one-on-one telephone counseling and referrals to local smoking cessation programs through your state quit line at 800-QUIT-NOW or call the National Cancer Institute free smoking quit line at 877-44U-QUIT.
It’s also important to identify and write down the times and situations you’re most likely to smoke and make a list of things you can do to replace it or distract yourself. Some helpful suggestions when the smoking urge arises are to call a friend or one of the free quit lines, keep your mouth occupied with some sugar-free gum, sunflower seeds, carrots, fruit or hard candy, go for a walk, read a magazine, listen to music or take a hot bath.
The intense urge to smoke lasts about three to five minutes, so do what you can to wait it out. It’s also wise to avoid drinking alcohol and steer clear of other smokers while you’re trying to quit. Both can trigger powerful urges to smoke.
For more tips on how to quit, including managing your cravings, withdrawal symptoms and what to do if you relapse, visit 60plus.SmokeFree.gov. There are also a variety of helpful quit-smoking apps you can download like SmokeFreeApp.com and QuitGenius.com.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.