Surgeon general says healthcare professionals need to do a better job helping smokers quit

Cigarette smoke
More than two-thirds of adult smokers in the U.S. are interested in quitting, according to a new surgeon general's report. (Pixabay/realworkhard)

While the dangers of cigarette smoking are well known, over 40% of adults who smoke do not receive advice to quit from a healthcare professional.

A new report (PDF) released Thursday—three decades after the first U.S. surgeon general’s report on smoking cessation—found four out of every nine adult cigarette smokers who saw a health professional during the past year did not receive advice to quit.

In the 700-page report, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, M.D., said that must change. “Primary care physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other providers in all medical disciplines and in all healthcare environments should take advantage of these opportunities to inform and encourage smokers to quit. Doing so could enable half a million smokers to quit each year,” he wrote.

In the report, Adams urged smokers to use a range of cessation methods that have been proven effective. The report said there is presently inadequate evidence to conclude that using e-cigarettes increases smoking cessation.

The report found that more than two-thirds of U.S. adult cigarette smokers report interest in quitting, and the majority of adult cigarette smokers in the U.S. have tried to quit during the past year.

RELATED: Surgeon general to healthcare professionals: Ask kids about e-cigarette use

Healthcare professionals can help patients by first advising them to quit, according to a summary of key report findings on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Other ways to help patients include:

  • Offering brief counseling
  • Prescribing cessation medications
  • Connecting them to additional resources, such as a smoking helpline
  • Following up with continued support to help prevent relapse

The CDC said that every member of the care team can help, supporting a coordinated-care approach, and noted that providing cessation treatment is reimbursable and can help meet quality measures.

The report recommended doctors and other health professionals devote more attention to helping vulnerable populations quit, including gay and transgender patients, Native Americans, people diagnosed with mental illness and others with high smoking rates.

One physician group said it is ready to get on board. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) said tobacco use remains the top cause of preventable diseases and is directly linked to 12 different cancers. 

"Cancer care providers should do everything in their power to prevent people from becoming addicted to nicotine—regardless of how it is delivered,” said the group’s president, Howard "Skip" Burris III, M.D., in a statement about cigarette smoking and e-cigarettes.

ASCO’s 2019 national survey found that roughly 1 in 5 young adults uses e-cigarettes daily or recreationally and nearly 1 in 4 believes the products are harmless and not addictive, despite evidence to the contrary. 

"The Surgeon General's report highlights that 40% of smokers are not advised by health providers to stop smoking, despite the fact that 70% want to quit. With this gap in mind, ASCO remains committed to promoting tobacco cessation and its resources to help oncologists incorporate the topic into daily cancer care,” Burris said.

It’s not the first time that Adams has called on physicians to take a proactive role to help patients. Last year, he called on doctors to reevaluate their prescribing habits and help patients struggling with opioid use disorder in the country’s opioid crisis. He has also encouraged doctors to ask young patients about e-cigarette use, saying use among youth has become an epidemic in the U.S.