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What made the achievement even more remarkable was that Johnson had been a smoker for 62 years.
“He is one of the longest smokers I have ever worked with in terms of years,” said Eletta Hansen, certified tobacco treatment specialist and group leader.
Johnson credits Hansen’s group at Mary Washington Hospital with helping him achieve what he once thought impossible.
“I figured I was going to die smoking,” he said.
Johnson, 73, started smoking at age 10, when the men working on his father’s truck farm in Oregon offered him a cigarette.
“I wanted to be part of them,” he said.
That started a decades-long addiction to tobacco. During that time, he smoked Lucky Strikes, Old Golds, Philip Morris, Chesterfield, Pall Malls and Baileys.
He smoked filtered, unfiltered and roll-your-owns. He paid anywhere from 10 cents to $5 per pack for two, three and four packs a day.
Cigarettes were with him during his long Navy career, including his time in Vietnam, through three marriages, two divorces and one wife’s death, and now in his retirement and residence in Spotsylvania County.
“To some extent the cigarette has been my friend,” he said. “If I got stressed, the cigarette helped. If I got angry, the cigarette helped. It was a reward when I worked hard.”
But the friendship came at a terrible cost. He suffered three heart attacks, and last month got his first inhaler for a newly diagnosed lung problem.
And the money spent? Maybe $70,000, he said.
It’s not that he didn’t want to quit. He got tired of friends saying “Anybody can do it” or “All you need is will-power.”
Well, no, it takes more than willpower, he told them. He had tried many times to quit, using things like patches, hypnosis, acupuncture, motivational tapes and even gold magnets clipped to his ear. None of it worked.
What he needed, he said, were the three things that he got from Hansen’s group: the support of people who knew what he was going through; Chantix, one of the FDA-approved stop-smoking drugs; and Zoloft, an anti-depressant.
Johnson said he attended his first group meeting as a favor to his ex-wife. He remembers sitting silently, arms crossed, almost daring anyone or anything to puncture the cloud of resistance around him.
But slowly it happened. He kept returning to the Thursday meetings. And soon, just as a group got him started smoking, a group helped him stop.
“The group grabs you,” he said. “You feel a kinship. You feel safe.”
Hansen said she has seen it happen many times: A longtime smoker, unable to quit, finally finds the help needed to stop.
“When they come to support group, they’re with a group of people who say ‘You can do it,’” she said. “The longer they go, the more empowered they become.”
Hansen, a registered nurse, also helped Johnson get prescriptions for the medications.
“What I find is that so many tobacco users have some underlying depression or anxiety, and they’re using tobacco to self-medicate,” she said.
Johnson smoked his last cigarette on July 22, 2010. He finished that pack and didn’t buy another.
Later, he found an unopened pack that he had forgotten about. He joked that he should have auctioned it at his next group meeting. Instead, he dumped it in the trash.
Johnson said he’s breathing better now that he has stopped. Also, his house and pickup smell better.
But he knows not to say that he’ll never smoke again.
“My next cigarette is out there,” he said. “The thing is, I don’t have to pick it up.”
Jim Hall: 540/374-5433