Employee Q&A: Smokers' Helpline Director Stephen Michael

Employee Q&A: Smokers' Helpline Director Stephen Michael

By Alexis BlueUniversity Communications
Printer-friendly version PDF version
Stephen Michael is director of the Arizona Smokers' Helpline.
Stephen Michael is director of the Arizona Smokers' Helpline.

Stephen Michael

Director, Arizona Smokers' Helpline, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health

Number of years at the UA
14 years (1981-1992 and 2006-present)

Favorite part about working at the UA
"I think the environment, both academic and research environment, at this University is far undervalued ... One of the things that really impresses me about the U of A is – it's got a culture, it's got a history, it's integrated into the community here – but the talent that is here is actually quite incredible."   

Stephen Michael, a native Tucsonan and director of the Arizona Smokers' Helpline, has a long history at the University of Arizona. In 1986, he was among the last group of students to earn an undergraduate degree in early childhood development from the UA's department of home economics, now the John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences. He then went on to earn his master's degree in rehabilitation counseling from the UA, with two focus areas: deafness and substance abuse.  

As a student, he worked in Residence Life as a front desk attendant, resident assistant and eventually a residence hall director. He left the UA in 1992 but returned in 2006 to head up the state's Arizona Smokers' Helpline, or ASHLine, based in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Today, Michael oversees a team of 12 staff members trained to provide telephone support to Arizona residents struggling to quit smoking. Smokers can call in for quick tips for kicking the habit or enroll in ASHLine's more extensive coaching program, which allows for regular telephone contact with an assigned "coach" and access to a limited amount of free over-the-counter quitting aids, such as gum, lozenges or the patch.

Michael recently talked with Lo Que Pasa about his work at the quit line and how tobacco has affected his own life.

The people who take calls are called coaches?
We call them coaches. In the past they were called counselors but because Arizona requires licensure to be a counselor and people don't really do counseling here (we call them coaches). What we do is – the way we put it is – we're like your personal trainer for quitting. When you want to quit it really helps, knowing how hard it is to quit, to have somebody who really understands the process, (who) can give some hints. We do everything individualized, because everybody's kind of in a different place when they call, so it's very much like having a personal trainer when you want to lose weight.

What's involved in training the coaches?  
What we do with folks is really specifically focused on helping people quit smoking. More than half our staff are former smokers, and they've been through the process themselves, which helps. And then everybody, even the coaches who weren't personal smokers, are here basically because, for one reason or another, they've been touched (by smoking) – whether they've lost a family member who was a smoker or have a current family member who's walking around on oxygen – so everybody here has a connection to tobacco in one way or another. But the training's pretty intense; it really focuses on what tobacco does to your brain – the behavioral addiction.

How have you been affected by smoking?
I just lost my grandfather to emphysema; my grandmother's blind because of her smoking. I grew up in the '60s and ... you walk into the house, you're in smoke; you drove around in the car (and) everybody smoked in the car with the windows up. So I always tell people, I've never really had a cigarette in my mouth, but I've probably smoked more than the average smoker, through secondhand smoke, which we now know is even more dangerous. I know I have reduced lung capacity ... and it's probably related to the fact that from the time I was born until I was, like, 13 I lived in a house that was full of smoke. Parents, grandparents, neighbors. I mean the smoking rate in the aunts, uncles, mid-'60s was about 70 percent.

You offer telephone and Web-based services?
Correct. We're moving toward integration as well. Right now the telephone is the core of everything we do, and every state's required to have a tobacco quit line, so we are, and have been since 1995, the quit line for Arizona. The Web piece has always been static; we just added a new interactive piece where people can go in and set up a quit plan online and check in and do some activities to help them stay quit. Then in January, if everything works well, we'll be integrating the phone and the Web so a person can actually do both. They can work with a coach on the phone and they can both actually work on their quit plan (online). Right now they're two separate things. .... The coach can't see your quit plan online right now.

How many calls do you get?
Our calls-in vary depending on what kind of media is going on around the state and around the country. ... We average 200, 250 calls a week. ... Most of the money that we're spending this year is going into our outreach program, which focuses on working with health care providers who can refer people to us. ... When we revamped it three years ago, we were doing (receiving) about 120 referrals per month and we average between 600 and 1,000 now, so the majority of our business is really from referrals.

So how many people do you serve in a year?
Coaching-wise it's anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people. Then we have people who just get tips and info from us, and that's anywhere from another two (thousand) to 5,000 people. Last year we served a little over 10,000 people; the year before that it was about 14,000.

Is there a cost to participate in the program?
No. Everything's paid for by tobacco tax dollars. ... So basically people have already paid for it. If you bought the cigarettes, you contributed to this program.

Who are your callers?
We are probably one of the few quit lines that actually serves more men than women. ... The people we are probably being the most successful with, still, are women (ages) 30 to 55, and that's true, I think, of almost every quit line in the country. ... The one area that we always struggle with are college-aged students, the 18- to 30-year-olds.  

What interested you about working with people with substance abuse problems?
I ended up getting into it accidentally. When I started my master's program (in rehabilitation counseling), one of the things they asked you was, "Who don't you think you can work well with?" And I said teenagers and drug users, and that's what I ended up doing for the first five years of my (professional) life was working with teenage drug users and actually loved it. ... When I first started I was with the Alcoholism Council of Tucson and I had an adolescent family treatment program, so adolescents with substance abuse problems and their parents had to come into the program, and then after 2 1/2 years I decided to move into prevention. ... And then I went into behavioral health.

What's the best part of your job?
Knowing you're making a difference. I'm very much a health advocate, so watching people make positive changes in their life, and hearing the stories, (is rewarding). ... Now we're collecting stories of the people that have gone through the program, and hearing their stories is always a great reminder of why it is you do what you do.

You can call the ASHLine at 800-556-6222. Callers must be Arizona residents.

Do you know someone who has an interesting job at the UA? Send his or her name and contact information to lqp@email.arizona.edu for consideration for a future Employee Q&A.

UA@Work is produced by University Communications

Marshall Building, Suite 100. 845 N. Park Ave., Tucson, AZ 85719 (or) 
P.O. Box 210158B, Tucson, AZ 85721

T 520.621.1877  F 520.626.4121

Feedback University Privacy Statement 

2023 © The Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of the University of Arizona