Kristl Buluran: Helping the campus breathe easier

As the Jan. 1 deadline approaches for all UC campuses to be tobacco-free, UC Berkeley smoking-cessation specialist Kristl Buluran at University Health Services talks about her role in the campus’s Breathe Campaign, her approach to helping smokers and her own experiences with cigarettes.

Q: What is the Breathe Campaign?

A: UC President Yudof mandated in 2012 that all UC campuses be tobacco-free by Jan. 1, 2014, to create a healthier environment for students, faculty, staff and visitors. Here at UC Berkeley, our Breathe Campaign is making people aware of this new social norm through billboards, signage, resources and events.

We have an event going on today (Thursday, Nov. 21).  Starting at 11 a.m., come on over to Cold Turkey Day outside the Golden Bear Center on Upper Sproul Plaza. In exchange for giving up a pack of cigarettes, one of my colleagues — dressed as a turkey — and I will give out a free turkey sandwich as a reward.

Q: What does UC Berkeley offer to smokers who want to quit?

A: University Health Services always has referred people to smoking-cessation resources and tools. This help is available here on campus in one-on-one and group settings, and by telephone or online, and also through an employee’s health plan and the city of Berkeley.

As part of Breathe, we’re offering free individual consultations and 50-minute Prepare to Quit Smoking group workshops, where I help people assess their readiness to quit and create a quit plan. I also distribute two weeks’ worth of free Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) in lozenge or patch formula.

The Prepare to Quit Smoking drop-in appointments held across campus are great for people who can’t come to the Tang Center.  I’ve held them at places including the Berkeley Art Museum, Valley Life Sciences Building, International House and Sproul Hall.

For those who want to use the holiday break to quit smoking, I’m also running free drop-in consultations every day during the first three weeks of December.

Q: How long have you been a smoking-cessation specialist?

I’ve been certified for seven years as a smoking-cessation facilitator through the American Lung Association. But the majority of my job as a worksite-wellness specialist at University Health Services has been helping people fit physical fitness into their schedules. Before 2013, the number of clients signing up for smoking-cessation consultations totaled about one or two people a year.

When the UC systemwide smoking ban was announced, and we launched Breathe last March, my background came in handy.

Q:  Were you ever a smoker yourself?

A: Yes. I started smoking at age 15 with a cigarette here and a cigarette there. I was a ballerina, so it was a way to maintain weight. Everyone smoked in the dance studio; my little Russian ballet teacher was smoking away. I smoked on and off for about 10 years and never once called myself a smoker. I never bought a pack. I bummed off friends. Then I went to college, and smoking was all about being social. But again, I never bought a pack. After I graduated and was making money, I started buying one pack that lasted two months, then one pack that lasted two weeks, and that went on for about three years.

When I went back for my graduate degree in public health, my dean smoked, and so did seven of our professors. There was an area right outside the dean’s office just for smoking. But I ran out of money for cigarettes. As a grad student, I was teaching aerobics, but not making much money. I didn’t quite quit altogether; I went back to bumming cigarettes, but they were so few and far between. I haven’t smoked now in years. Looking back, it was just part of the culture during those years. No one questioned it.

Q: How difficult is it to stop smoking?

A: Smoking is very powerful; it’s such a huge habit. And when people tell me what a cigarette means to them, I can relate because of my history with smoking.

There are two parts to the addiction. There’s the drug addiction, to the nicotine. And there’s habitual addiction, to the ritual of smoking. Both are hard habits to break. Some find the drug addiction easier to break than the habitual. For some of them, it’s a social thing; for others, it’s comforting, calming. They consider a cigarette a tool that helps during times of stress, celebration or even boredom. I have a friend who, first thing in morning, reaches for a cigarette.

Because the health effects are not immediate, people don’t think about them; they don’t see how this little thing in their hands can cause so many problems. That’s the biggest challenge to quitting the smoking habit.

Smokers are great quitters because they do it so often. Most smokers quit multiple times before they actually quit smoking for good. It’s the “stay” quit that’s harder.

Q: What’s your personal approach to helping smokers?

A:  My biggest message is that I’m not trying to get people to quit smoking if they’re not ready. I provide assistance to those who either are ready to quit or need help managing their habit while on campus grounds.

Showing people a picture of a black lung won’t resonate, in a lot of ways. Employees who have been smoking 30 or more years have seen the commercials, the public service announcements, the smokers breathing through holes in their throats. People have to make the decision to quit on their own.

I’m also here for those who need help managing their smoking habit. The tobacco-free policy isn’t telling  people that they have to quit smoking, but they will not be allowed to smoke on campus property starting January 1. For those working or going to school here, it may be challenging not to smoke for a good six to eight hours a day. We want to help them with this.

I feel like my clients appreciate that I’m not judgmental. For many smokers, they know they have a bad habit, but also feel shamed or vilified, to a certain degree. When smokers tell me they’re struggling with quitting, there is no judgment on my part.

Q: Do you have any favorite client success stories?

A: Sure. Recently, a student trying to quit asked for help because his studying and concentration levels were going down. He decided to try NRT. One of the things I ask clients is, “What is your environment like?” He said he had friends who smoked, but all of them were trying to quit, too. I suggested they all quit together, and form a good support system, but he said he didn’t know if they were ready yet. He left with NRT, and two days later, one of his friends came to see me to quit, too.

Another client, a UC Berkeley employee, has completely quit after two one-on-one appointments and a six-week program offered by the city of Berkeley. His wife is a smoker, too, and they decided to quit together. I encouraged them to have a discussion about their individual goals and to work together to see if they could help each other meet those goals. About a week ago, I saw him again, and he’s done a video for us.

People can create their own support systems, and it helps the quit process even further.

Q: What do you tell non-smokers who are concerned about the smokers they work and live with?

A: What’s not helpful is lecturing, judging, acting like a parent by saying, “You know that’s bad for you.” If you’re dealing with people who aren’t ready to quit, and they enjoy the habit, there isn’t much you can do.

If a friend or loved on is ready to quit, encourage that person to seek out helpful resources. In addition to UC Berkeley’s program for the campus community, a great free resource that can be accessed 24/7 by any smoker is the California Smokers’ Helpline, 1-800-NO-BUTTS. The Tang Center’s smoking cessation website also has additional tips.

As a non-smoker, if you don’t appreciate smoking around you, you can set your own ground rules without telling your colleagues or classmates that smoking is bad for them. You can remind your smoking friends that your car or home is smoke-free. What I tell my friends who smoke is, “You can’t smoke in my house or in my car.”

Q: Is the Breathe Campaign and your efforts with campus smokers working?

A: Since we started advertising the one-on-one consultations and the free NRT benefits last spring, I’ve now seen about 45 clients. Compare that to one to two people per year that contacted me, and I’ve been with Health Matters for 14 years. Some years I spoke with no one. From that to 45 in eight months isn’t bad, and it keeps growing. I get about two to three calls or emails now a week.