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Up in smoke 

Free nicotine patches, acupuncture and the charismatic Dan Steeves are here to help you kick the habit.

There are a few really good free things in this town. At least two are offered by Capital Health’s Addiction Services. The first is the free nicotine patch and gum you can get through their Tobacco Intervention program. The second is auricular acupuncture.

If you’re addicted to a drug, let’s say nicotine, it’s very, very difficult to put money into something that replaces the love affair (no matter how misguided or lopsided, sick and twisted) you have with your drug. For many smokers, that something is nicotine patches, gum and inhalers. It may cost as little as eight bucks for a deck of smokes; a pack-a-day habit is then $56 a week. The patch may cost as little as $21 a week; doing the math says that it’s cheaper than smoking—but that isn’t the emotional math.

The emotional math says it’s better to buy smokes than to buy patches or gum or inhalers. How to get around this? Make it free.

The letter D is really big in the smoking cessation community here. Stress is often a tough thing for quitters; the three Ds of dealing with the roots of it are: Do it, Delegate it, Dump it. 

The four Ds of dealing with cravings are: Drink water, Deep breathe, Delay, Distract.

Oh, and the fifth D: Dan.

You might come for the free patches, but you’ll stay for Dan Steeves. If you’re ready to quit smoking, he’s the go-to guy in the Capital Health District. He administers the smoking cessation program for Addiction Prevention & Treatment Services. You begin with a Getting Started session, which is the gateway meeting. Then you go to hour-long once-a-week meetings, four of them, hosted either by Steeves, or Shawn Jolemore, who is the newest member of the Tobacco Intervention team, and a boy wonder to Steeves’s super hero. Annette Rice is the third member of the team. All told, you invest 300 minutes. You get tips and strategies for being smoke free, plus free nicotine replacement therapy, i.e. the patch and gum.

Dan Steeves is a sturdy, shambling man, given to oxford shirts in various shades of blues and khaki pants. He speaks in declarative sentences. When asked who would play him in a movie-of-the-week about the program, Steeves says maybe a hybrid of Dave Letterman and Vincent d’Onofrio. He’s exactly right. And he knows a hell of a lot about cigarettes.

At a recent introductory session, folks are worried. As much as they might want to quit smoking, the idea is scary. Steeves is on the keel as he always is: calm, slightly amused, optimistic, realistic. And by the way, Steeves doesn’t call it smoking. He calls it freebasing nicotine.

“Yes,” he says, “when you smoke. You. Are. Freebasing. Freebasing happens when you add chemicals and heat a substance to the point where its chemical makeup changes. The tobacco industry adds chemicals to tobacco.” Someone asks how hot a cigarette gets. “Eight hundred to 1,200 degrees,” says Steeves. “Depending on how hard you’re inhaling.”

A woman complains that last time she quit she used the patch but didn’t think she had to wear it at night. Someone else chimes in about having vivid dreams while on the patch. “Yeah,” says the woman. “I stopped wearing them at night.” There’s a pause, nods from some in the room and people look to Steeves, who has a small smile on his face. He asks the woman the iconic Dr. Phil question. “How’s that working for you?” he asks. The woman hesitates. Since she’s at a Getting Started session, she’s a smoker. “Uh, not so good.” People laugh. Steeves is quick to throw her a lifeline. “No,” he says, “that’s OK. We all get ready in our own way. You do what’s best for you and always check with your. Trusted. Healthcare. Provider.”

He uses the same semi rah-rah attitude with someone who says they can cure smoking; they have a method of hypnosis with a 50 to 60 percent success rate after just one 60-minute session. “Well, good,” says Steeves. “I’d encourage you to write that up and send me a copy. The smoking cessation community would be very excited. Thanks for sharing that.”

Someone is worried that nicotine patches and gum will be just as addictive as cigarettes. Steeves is ready. “When they ram a truck through the front of Sobeys,” he says, “or armed thieves hit up the Costco, they’re not going for the patches.” People laugh again. “Right? They don’t steal cartons of nicotine gum.”

Another worrier says that it’s all toxic now, the cars, the industry, so what’s the point? “Maybe,” says Steeves, “we all live in a garage but some of us have our mouths on the tailpipe 240 times a day and some of us don’t…”

Over soup at Bob & Lori’s, Steeves is the same even, funny guy, just a little more hyper. He went to University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and met his wife, Jane, there. She’s a nurse at the IWK. He started out as a teacher in Saint John, and then worked in the youth correctional facility at Shelburne. As he’s saying this, Steeves leans forward, gets very serious, and says, “Long. After. All. The. Events.” Then he worked at Kingsclear and surprised himself by moving from working with youth to adults. “It came to be,” he says, “that I couldn’t tell one Jason from another and I never wanted to be one of those guys.”

“It’s a surprise,” Steeves says about working in addiction services. “I thought I would end up teaching high-school English, coaching football and doing the musical.”

Steeves can rattle off numbers and statistics related to tobacco manufacturing. As he talks it’s clear he thinks of the industry as capital-E evil. He’s asked if The Insider, the film with Russell Crowe playing Jeffrey Wiegand, the tobacco executive whistle blower, is his favourite. “No,” he says shortly. “There’s too much using in that film.”

The only time Steeves is at a loss for words is when he’s asked about the importance of humour. He stares out into the distance. “So important,” he says quietly, with great feeling. “Humour can be a therapeutic tool. People should enjoy our sessions, especially if they come expecting the Dark Lung to appear. We have removed the moral message. Humour is the great equalizer.” And later, “I’m not much of a slapstick guy. I’m not a Stooge. I’m more of a Steven Wright or Jerry Seinfeld.”

He’s worked with The Improveteers and wrote Dangerous Offender—a 1999 Fringe Festival production about one man’s struggle to explain his criminal actions. Steeves also helped write and appeared in 2002’s Cruel Shoes. He has a great sense of the absurd which he brings to the sessions.

“The program is flexible—as long as we root it in what’s been clinically proven to help, we can be creative,” he says. Part of its success is that Steeves does not see smoking as a moral issue. He sees it as a health issue. “It’s not about you being good or bad, smart or dumb,” he says. “It’s about your health and that of your loved ones and your pets and your plants. And I am not a counsellor. Not a therapist. I want to act as a mentor, as a coach, as an educator.”

There’s another free program through Addiction Services—auricular acupuncture. Paul Helwig is manager of the clinical program of Addiction Services Core. Acupuncture sessions began in 1999 as a pilot program for those kicking nicotine. The response was overwhelming and it now serves more than 1,000 people a month—addicts of all kinds—in six locations around the Capital Health area.

Helwig says the program is a gateway to other services. “You don’t have to say a word. Nobody’s in your face.” He’s right. Auricular acupuncture is one of the nicest hours you can give yourself. Anyone can go. No one asks why you’re there, so no one gives you the “oh, yeah, you pussy!” raised-eyebrow signal when you say you’re kicking nicotine. You wouldn’t get the pussy eyebrow anyway, because anyone who’s quit nicotine and something else, crack cocaine, say, will tell you that kicking nicotine is the bigger bitch. Efforts to quit freebasing tobacco are met with respect everywhere.

So at acupuncture, you sign in, pick up a little foil-packed alcohol swab, and wipe out whatever little boogies you have in the outer parts of your ear. Then a worker will come around and with sweet gentle delicacy, put the thin needles in, five in each ear. Maybe the worker will give you a play-by-play, telling you the connection between the needles and sites in your body. You might feel a tiny twinge.

The lights get lowered, great green detox tea gets handed out, some innocuous vaguely new-age music gets played, and for 45 minutes you can skate away to dreamland, or focus on your breathing and meditate, or read a book. The lights come back up, the worker takes out your needles and you are good to go—refreshed, energized, somehow comforted. There’s a warm wind at your back, and off you go, better ready to manage the day.

As Dan Steeves says, your addiction is never cured. It’s managed. About 3,000 people have been to a Getting Started session since they began in 2002. Halifax has one of the lowest adult rates of tobacco use in Canada. That’s partly because of our tough (and getter tougher) bylaws. And partly because of these three really good free things: the nicotine patch, auricular acupuncture and Dan Steeves.

For acupuncture locations and times call 424-5623. For Getting Started session dates call 424-2025.


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