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Support program reaping rewards for homeless smokers

Wednesday 5 August, 2015

An innovative support program has demonstrated that homeless services can help their clients cut down and quit smoking, to deliver health benefits in a group with a very high smoking rate.

Nurses from Melbourne’s Royal District Nursing Service Homeless Persons’ Program offered weekly counselling to clients interested in cutting down or quitting smoking as part of the support program, conducted in partnership with Quit Victoria.

While smoking prevalence is declining among the general population, smoking by homeless people remains alarmingly high. A 2011 national survey of homeless welfare recipients found 83 per cent were smokers . In the general population, 13.3 per cent of adults in Australia are daily smokers.

A total of 49 homeless smokers enrolled in the support program. Nurses accompanied clients to an appointment with a GP to review their health, and obtain nicotine patches and quitting medicines including Zyban and Champix where appropriate.

Quit Victoria trained nurses to deliver counselling support to the smokers, which included a focus on techniques that helped reduce stress.

Quitline counsellors phoned the smokers to offer support, after receiving training from RDNS workers on issues faced by homeless people. Some of the homeless smokers received a free second-hand mobile phone to enable them to take the calls.

An evaluation of the support program, led by Quit Victoria Behavioural Scientist Dr Cathy Segan, found that among clients interviewed three months after concluding the program, 7 per cent had quit smoking, 67 per cent had made a quit attempt and those still smoking had almost halved the number of cigarettes smoked each day.

Clients also benefited from reduced expenditure on tobacco, which dropped from a quarter to an eighth of their total income. This was an average saving of $32 a week – a significant amount for people experiencing homelessness.

All smokers involved in the trial reported either stable or fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, debunking a commonly-held myth among support workers that homeless clients will be unable to cope without cigarettes.

Client manager for the Royal District Nursing Service’s Homeless Persons’ Program, Theresa Swanborough, said the program was valued by clients and had highlighted smoking as an unmet need.

“This pilot shows that homeless services can address smoking. One of the surprise findings for us was the popularity of Quitline among our clients. We encourage staff from other services to ask their clients if they are interested in receiving help to quit and if they are happy for Quitline to call them.”

Quit Victoria Director Sarah White said the study showed that many homeless people were motivated to quit smoking, and it was important to find effective ways to support them in reaching this goal.

“This program has made a real difference to the daily lives of homeless smokers,’’ Dr White said.

“We are committed to helping all Victorians improve their health by butting out for good, no matter what obstacles they may face.”

The study is published in the journal, Nicotine and Tobacco Research.


Contact:  Kate Hagan, Quit Victoria Media Manager, 0438 058 406

For help to quit smoking, contact Quitline on 13 7848