NEW ORLEANS - Smokers in Louisiana are getting the chance of a lifetime, one that could change the course of their health.
There's a program that will give you free medical care to stop smoking.
Melanie Laborie picked up her teen brother's pack of cigarettes when she was only 14. She had just lost her father. Now at 55, for the first time, she is a non-smoker.
"Twelve weeks. I never thought I could do it. I came here and I cried the first week because I didn't think I'd be successful," said Laborie.
Melanie joined a smoking cessation program at West Jefferson Medical Center when she found out about the Smoking Cessation Trust, money that tobacco companies had to pay after losing a law suit that began in the 1990s. For anyone who started smoking before September 1, 1988, for the next nine years, all classes, prescription medications, doctor visits, patches, nicotine gum are free, every year to those who want to stop.
"If you want to stop we have the funds to reimburse the providers. You don't ever have to put any money out of pocket," said Mike Rogers, the CEO of SCT Management Services, who explained that this is not an insurance program.
A Vietnam veteran who is in the class, started smoking in the stress of combat.
"It just got so bad. Cigarette relaxed me, " explained Jeff Lockwood.
Forty-two years later, with an aneurysm and COPD, he simply wants the medical help to live.
"It's more addictive than cocaine or heroin. It's a harder habit to break because it's easy to get. It's relatively cheap and you can buy it anywhere. The brain really likes it," said Jules Poirier a WJMC Respiratory Therapist who is teaching a cessation class.
Nine thousand smokers have already signed up throughout Louisiana.
Melanie knew this program came at the right time when her two year old granddaughter asked to go outside with her while she smoked.
"I did it for me but I did it for her too. I didn't know that I needed support, so this program has other people who feel the same way you do and it helped so much," said Laborie with tears in her eyes.
There are people who were just 10 years old in 1988 who are qualifying for the free treatment because they tried a parent's cigarette at that age, and are now smokers.
There are programs at West Jefferson Medical Center (504-349-2340) www.wjmc.org/stopsmoking, Ochsner (504-842-7490), and Slidell Memorial Hospital. There are also programs throughout the state.
To sign up and see if you qualify call the trust at 504-529-5665 or 855-259-6346. Or www.smokingcessationtrust.org .