New Tool to Kick Butts

November 18, 2015

The percentage of adults who smoke in Georgia is higher than the national average.[1] According to the American Cancer Society, smoking is responsible for nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the United States and half of all smokers who keep smoking will die from smoking-related illness. These are troubling statistics.

As part of broader smoking cessation efforts at Emory, radiation oncologist Dr. Kristin Higgins and nurse practitioner Ulrike Gorgens have begun using a new tool in their clinic to try to beat these odds. We sat down with them to learn more.

Tell us about this new tool.

Higgins: If you’ve ever seen a breathalyzer, which measures alcohol in your breath, this tool, called a Smokerlyzer®, looks much the same. Patients blow into it and can see the levels of carbon monoxide (CO) in their blood displayed on the instrument’s screen. The CO numbers – the lower the better – provide an immediate way for us to assess their smoking status and allow quantification of cigarette use.

Why do you think it is effective?

Gorgens: We think patients will be more likely to stop smoking if they are able to see the damage they are doing. That’s the value the tool adds. It provides motivation. Patients get to keep the printout of their CO readings. This visual reminder of how they’re doing is a way for us to track and review their progress with them each time they come in to see us. We hope that seeing CO numbers fall will inspire them to keep going. It’s the same satisfaction dieters experience when they step on a scale and see the numbers fall as they lose weight.

What have been the results so far?

Higgins: We’ve been using the tool for a couple of months so far and patients seem receptive. It is my hope that patients may have better clinical outcomes as a result of smoking cessation early in a course of treatment. Additionally, smoking cessation may reduce long-term radiation side effects. We are interested in studying this within our lung cancer and head and neck cance population.

What is something most people don’t know about smoking?

Gorgens: Nearly everyone knows that smoking can cause lung cancer, but few people realize it is also linked to a higher risk for many other kinds of cancer too, according to the American Cancer Society, including cancer of the mouth, nose, bladder, liver, kidney, cervix and more.[2]

Why do you care if your patients smoke?

Dr. Kristin Higgins and nurse practitioner Ulrike Gorgens

Higgins: Quitting smoking is important for patients because it will lower their risk of getting other cancers. Immediately, they will see their blood pressure lowered. With time, it will improve overall lung function and may reduce long-term organ damage related to other diseases such as diabetes.[3]

What other resources do you recommend to someone trying to quit?

Gorgens: Quitting is not easy and you may have to try a few different approaches until you find one that works for you. Two great resources are:

[1] Disparities in Tobacco Use in Georgia. Georgia Department of Public Health. February 2013.
[2] How does smoking affect your health? American Cancer Society
[3] When smokers quit – what are the benefits over time? American Cancer Society

Photo caption: Dr. Kristin Higgins (left) with nurse practitioner Ulrike Gorgens (right)