The Union health ministry will set up three regional telephonic counselling centres in anticipation of an increase in the number of calls after cigarette packs and tobacco products start carrying a toll-free quitline number from September.
A national quitline centre has been offering counselling in Hindi and English from Delhi’s Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute (VPCI) since May 2016.
The three new centres at Bangalore’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, and Guwahati’s Dr B Borooah Cancer Institute will also offer counselling in regional languages.
“The counsellors handling the national helpline speak only Hindi and English and are not representative of the country’s linguistic diversity. The regional centres will address this problem,” said a health ministry official on condition of anonymity.
Uttar Pradesh accounted for 35% of the calls, followed by Delhi (11%), and Maharashtra (8%), according to May 2016 to May 2018 data at VPCI.
There are plans to link the floundering SMS smoking cessation service to the helpline to give people the option of also receiving counselling through text messages. It takes a day just to collect the names, data, education and employment status of texters.
One in three calls to the interactive voice response system of the national quitline actually gets answered, according to the two-year data, largely because the Delhi centre has eight counsellors working in two shifts a day to answer 200 to 300 calls daily.
Technical glitches are also to blame. “In the 15 days that we observed the system, there were technical glitches on three. When the quitline is scaled up, it will need a more efficient technological interface,” said another health ministry official on condition of anonymity.
It took 11 missed calls from HT to the toll-free number to get a callback. But once on a call, the psychologists doing the counselling spent 23 minutes giving tips on how to stop smoking. The tips from counsellors ranged from suggesting setting a quit date to drinking six litres of water daily and chewing Patanjali amla.
The counselling is similar to that in person for substance abuse at clinics. “This concurs with what we prescribe, but the advice has to be tailored according to the cues that prompt a person to smoke. The key is to set an objective, motivate a person to want to quit and avoid the cues,” said Prerna Sharma, a clinical psychologist at New Delhi’s Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.
The Quitline boasts of no tobacco use for three months by almost 39% of the callers and 32% continuous abstinence for one-year, according to the two-year data. These results are as good as those for face-to-face counselling, say Sharma.