‘Quit & Win’ winners get $1,000 each

Winners of the inaugural Quit & Win contest, Charles Smith (center) and James Paladino (right) hold up a ceremonial $1,000 check before getting real checks from MUSC Hollings Cancer Center tobacco researcher Michael Cummings (left).

Two former smokers, including a former New York City firefighter and a musician on hiatus who works as a tree pruner during the day and a cook by night, are both $1,000 richer after participating in the inaugural Quit & Win contest.

Winners James Paladino, 41, of Mount Pleasant and Charles Smith, 35, of Summerville were among the 548 people who signed up for the tobacco smoking cessation contest, which was organized by the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center and co-sponsored by The Post and Courier.

Both were tested biochemically to verify that they had stopped smoking during the contest time frame, Jan. 15 through Feb. 15.

They were presented with checks at a celebration at Hollings on Thursday.

While from different backgrounds, Paladino and Smith shared very similar stories and reasons for quitting.

Paladino had quit for a few months in the summer of 2001 when the South Bronx firefighter responded to New York City ground zero sites of 9/11.

The pressure of the situation led him to smoke again, a pack-a-day habit that had plagued him for the past 15 years.

Smith had been a smoker for 20 years, working in jobs that tend to have a higher exposure to smoking: music, landscape and restaurant work.

Both not only cited their own personal health but wishes of loved ones for wanting to quit.

Paladino had not been feeling well last year and was pondering quitting when his 7-year-old son, James Jr., told him that cigarettes were “drugs.”

“I told him, ‘No, (cigarettes) are not drugs, but inside I knew he was right,” recalls Paladino. “I realized what he was taking in and what I was showing him. It (smoking) wasn’t healthy physically or emotionally.”

Smith also was motivated by his 8-year-old Jonas, his mother and his girlfriend, Melissa Slayton, who told Smith about the contest.

“We’d been talking about quitting for a while and I just never really committed myself to doing it,” says Smith. “I had been thinking of it when the contest came up. ... I need to live healthier and want to be around for them for a long time.”

Slayton says she had more reasons to try to get Smith to quit.

“I didn’t get to meet two of my grandparents because of lung cancer and I just wanted him to be healthier and to save money,” says Slayton, adding that she also didn’t want him to damage his voice and ultimately his musical talent.

Paladino and Smith both say that the use of nicotine patches and gum and the assistance provided by the S.C. Quitline were keys to helping them quit, especially in the first week. Both say they have not resumed smoking.

Dr. Michael Cummings, co-lead tobacco researcher at Hollings, spearheaded the Quit & Win contest, tailoring it after a similar one he conducted in Buffalo, N.Y.

Cummings had mixed feelings about the success of the first contest of its kind in the Charleston area, particularly considering that it drew less than one percent of the estimated 90,000 smokers in the tri-county area.

“I liked the buzz the contest got when we announced it and how one of the local radio stations picked it up to support those trying to stop smoking. That said, on the downside, I wish we could’ve recruited more smokers to sign up,” says Cummings.

“Smokers are going underground. Many feel ostracized and embarrassed by their smoking and aren’t willing to go public with their quitting efforts. We need to do better helping smokers rather than chastising them.”

Still, he saw the contest well worth the investment.

“For every two smokers who signed up and quit smoking, we’re preventing one premature death,” says Cummings.

He noted that Hollings tobacco policy program coordinator Dianne Wilson, who ran the day-to-day operations of the contest, sent out letters to participants who didn’t win the two cash prizes and offered help in the future. Several people emailed back notes of thanks and that the contest helped them quit for good.

Dr. Anthony Alberg, interim director of Hollings, trumpeted the contest, saying it fits with the mission of the cancer center.

“Here at the Hollings Cancer Center, we work hard to tackle the cancer problem from every angle and we work hard every day to do that. That includes not only working hard to find new and more efficacious treatments for cancer but also work to prevent cancer from ever occurring. That’s why tobacco control is so important to us,” says Alberg.

He reminded attendees that smoking causes 12 different cancers, not only lung cancer, and is responsible for one-third of all cancer deaths. Besides cancer, smoking also plays a serious role in heart disease, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

So will Quit & Win return in 2017?

Cummings would like to do it, but would like to see it be a state-wide endeavor, particularly considering how powerful a resource the state’s Quitline is. He also wants to get feedback from smokers.