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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Helping Canadians butt out

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

Julie Belanger spends a lot of time on the phone. But for her, it's not to catch up with friends or make plans for the weekend. Julie is a Quit Specialist for the Canadian Cancer Society's (CCS) Smokers' Helpline, and it's her job to help Canadians give up cigarettes.

"We have one caller who quit 18 months ago," Belanger explains. "We helped her through the initial process when she first decided to quit. And now each month on her quit date, she calls us to tell us how she's doing. I find that really gratifying."

May 31 is World No Tobacco Day, a perfect time to celebrate the contribution people like Julie make to helping Canadians kick this deadly habit. Experts hope it's a winning battle, as smoking rates have declined drastically in Canada in past decades.

In 1965, 61% of men and 38 % of women in Canada were smokers. By 2001, that number dropped to 24% of men and 20% of women, according to the Canadian Council for Tobacco Control Web site. (

Still, about 5.4 million Canadians continue to smoke, putting themselves at risk of contracting cardiovascular diseases such as strokes and heart disease, cancers of the lungs, mouth or larynx, or respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

The helpline is an innovative way to help smoking Canadians help themselves. Open five days a week, the staff help smokers find the most effective way to "butt out."

"When we began in 2000, we hooked up with the University of Waterloo to make sure we designed something that was evidence based, up to date, and cutting edge," says Louise Walker, project manager of smoking cessation for the Canadian Cancer Society.
Quitting resources
  • Canadian Cancer Society Smokers' Helpline: 1-877-513-5333. Open Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Canadian Cancer Society Smokers' Helpline: 1-877-513-5333. Open Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Be Smoke Free: A cessation series in a support group setting. Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre, 2075 Bayview Ave. 416-338-8478.
  • Ruby Swayze Quit Smoking Clinic: One-on-one smoking cessation counselling. Toronto East General Hospital, 825 Coxwell Ave. 416-397-4785.
  • Support Group: Drop in support group run by public health nurses. Rouge Valley Health System, 2867 Ellesmere Rd. 416-284-1519.
  • Toronto Public Health Web site:

  • "We scanned all the quit lines around the world, took the best of what we learned and designed a service here in Ontario," Walker says. "It became so popular that a number of provinces decided to purchase the service from us."

    Today, 10 quit specialists at the Hamilton-based call centre take in calls from six provinces. All those answering phones have completed post-secondary education in a health or social service area, and the CCS gives them two weeks of training.

    "We teach them motivational interviewing skills and how to provide intervention. We give them role-playing practice. Then we do supplementary courses, like how to deal with pregnant smokers. We like to keep everybody fresh and up to date," Walker says.

    The quit specialists deal with an average of 50 to 75 calls a day. Some are short calls from people requesting basic information. Others are from those in the process kicking the habit.

    "Some people don't have moral support from friends and family," Belanger says. "Knowing that we are here as a support system and that they can call throughout the process, especially during the stressful times -- that seems to help people out."

    (Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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