acupuncture for smoking cessation_fullBy Sara Calabro

The American Lung Association recently released its State of Tobacco Control 2010 report—and the news is not good.

According to the report, most states are “failing miserably when it comes to combating tobacco-caused disease.”

Instead of directing anti-smoking funds toward tobacco regulation, prevention and wellness, and smoke-free laws, most states used the money for general budget deficits. This is ethically and economically foolish, as tobacco-related illnesses and secondhand smoke exposure cost us billions of dollars every year.

The need is greater now than ever for an effective way to help people quit smoking. Acupuncture can help—but there’s a caveat.

Ear acupuncture is the go-to acupuncture cure for smoking

The best-known acupuncture treatment for smoking cessation is the NADA protocol.

NADA stands for National Acupuncture Detoxification Association and the protocol is used in addiction and behavioral-health programs to treat a range of conditions. In addition to smoking, the NADA protocol is used for alcohol and drug dependency, weight loss, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.

NADA is by far the most successful example of acupuncture being incorporated into mainstream medicine.

The NADA protocol consists of five acupuncture points in each ear: Shen Men, Sympathetic, Kidney, Liver and Lung.

Shen Men and Sympathetic reduce anxiety and calm the nervous system; Kidney addresses deep-seeded psychological imbalances; Liver ensures smooth flow throughout the body, helping to break up any obstructions caused by smoking; and Lung correlates to the organ most directly involved in smoking.

Unlike how acupuncture is typically administered in the United States—weekly, in one-on-one settings following an extensive diagnostic process—the NADA protocol is performed quickly, usually in groups and in chairs rather than on tables.

In a hospital or addiction-recovery center, the person administering acupuncture is not necessarily a licensed acupuncturist but rather a nurse, drug counselor or other healthcare professional who took NADA’s 70-hour training course. (Usually these people work under the supervision of a licensed acupuncturist.) Patients often receive the protocol several times a week.

So what’s the caveat?

The beauty of the NADA protocol is its simplicity and ability to help an enormous number of people. The problem with the NADA protocol is that it’s drastically underutilized.

Acupuncture services in hospitals are commonly limited to addiction and/or psychiatric units. Patients admitted to these units are usually struggling with severe addictions or mental-health issues.

It is critical and commendable that acupuncture in the form of NADA is reaching these patients. However, the NADA protocol also is indicated and effective for addictions of lesser severity—namely, smoking—and yet it’s widely unavailable for this use.

Many people have tried acupuncture for smoking to no avail. Why?

To a degree, it’s luck of the draw: As is true of most smoking-cessation therapies, something that works for one person won’t necessarily work for the next. Conditions that are heavily influenced by emotional factors—smoking is one example; weight loss and irritable bowel syndrome are others—are especially finicky in this way.

But in regard to acupuncture specifically, a significant percentage of failures at quitting smoking are due to inadequate frequency of treatment.

Due to complications and conflicts associated with acupuncture clinical trials, there is no definitive answer on how often NADA’s five-point protocol should be administered to be effective for smoking cessation. But talk to any acupuncturist with experience successfully treating people for smoking and they will tell you that frequency is key.

Yet a typical acupuncture session costs anywhere between $60 and $150 depending on geography and practitioner. Even on the low end, at $60-and-up a pop, it’s unrealistic for most people to come for acupuncture more than once a week, or even weekly with any consistency.

Most insurance carriers don’t include smoking cessation on their list of conditions for which acupuncture is reimbursable—a shortsighted and financially flawed decision on par with states’ allocation of anti-smoking funds away from anti-smoking efforts.

This is not to suggest that weekly one-on-one acupuncture sessions will not eventually help someone stop smoking. For those who can afford it, private whole-body acupuncture treatments are an excellent way to simultaneously address the physical cravings and psychological imbalances that feed smoking addictions. But they are not necessary.

The NADA protocol presents a time-efficient, easy-to-administer option that has been shown repeatedly to help people quit smoking. In terms of improving widespread adoption of acupuncture for smoking cessation, NADA is the way to go.

So the caveat about acupuncture and smoking is that it only works when received frequently enough, which in most cases means a minimum of twice a week.

The best option at this point for people who want to quit smoking is to visit a community acupuncture clinic, where prices are relatively affordable. Most of these clinics charge sliding-scale fees (usually between $15 and $50) and many offer smoking-cessation specials, where you can come in for just the NADA protocol for around $10.

Reporting last week on a Journal of Neuroscience study about visual smoking triggers, The Huffington Post said, “We know that smoking is bad and that the nicotine in cigarettes makes them addictive, but we still have a long way to go before we know how to help smokers who want to quit.”

In acupuncture, we have an effective option. The mystery is, how can we make it more accessible?

Photo by Sara Calabro

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