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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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He was smoke-free for 10 years and for the last year. In between: 62 years of smoking

Harvey Johnson

When a member of the stop-smoking group at Mary Washington Hospital has been smoke-free for a year, the group celebrates with cake and ice cream.

Last month the celebration was in Harvey Johnson’s honor. Johnson quit smoking one year ago, on July 22, 2010. By then, he had smoked 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, 73, started smoking at age 10, when the men working on his father’s truck farm in Oregon offered him a cigarette. 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.

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.

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 will power, he told them. He tried many times to quit, using all kinds of devices, including patches, hypnosis, acupuncture, motivational tapes and even gold magnets clipped to his ear. Nothing worked.

What he needed, he said, were the three things 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.

Hansen, a registered nurse, helped Johnson get prescriptions for the two 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 said he feels better now that he’s stopped. 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.”

(For more about Johnson, see the story Sunday in the Healthy Living section of the paper.

The stop-smoking support group at Mary Washington Hospital meets Thursdays from 7 to 8 p.m. in Classroom C at the Tompkins-Martin Medical Plaza. The meetings are free. Pre-registration is not required. For more information, call 741-1334.)