Chrishelle Stipe, tobacco cessation coordinator with Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, prepared class materials Feb. 11 for a session of Geaux Free, the center’s smoking cessation outreach effort in Baton Rouge.

This night’s crowd is light — just two participants arrive by 5 p.m. to the meeting room in the Bienville Building downtown. Mardi Gras, or the illnesses that come with winter weather, may be partly to blame for the attendance, but Stipe has hosted classes with as many as 25 students at once.

The approaches to quitting smoking are as varied and personal as the reasons people start smoking in the first place, Stipe said, and it takes a personalized effort to make it work.

“People don’t have to quit during the class if they don’t want to,” Stipe said, though she measures the program’s success on how many people quit by the end of the 9-week sessions.

She recommends participants try, she said, because in her years as a smoking cessation educator, she’s noticed that the classes often bond over their mutual struggle to quit, and act as a support network that reinforces the concepts taught in the classes, and give students a chance to practice the skills they’re learning while they have the support in place.

They start off each class by breathing into a monitor that measures carbon monoxide in the breath. This gives each student a measurable way to track progress. Smoking creates carbon monoxide in the lungs, which must be expelled.

Nonsmokers should have CO levels at 6 parts per million or lower. “I think the highest reading I’ve gotten was 80 parts per million,” she said.

Ashwin Shetty’s CO level is 4 — he hasn’t smoked all day, he said.

The engineer is a mostly social smoker, he said, and though Stipe advocates the use of nicotine replacement therapies like nicotine gum or patches, Shetty is determined not to rely on them.

“I don’t want to replace a drug with a drug,” he said, admitting it’s been tough.

One of the techniques Stipe teaches is one of simple prevention — don’t bring cigarettes with you to situations that would act as triggers, and for Shetty, that’s bars and alcohol.

He usually smokes while out drinking with friends, he said, and left his cigarettes at home the night before when he was out. “I ended up bumming from my friends who smoke,” he said.

That, Stipe argued, is why patches or gum might be useful. While it’s not a permanent solution, she said, it is a good way to take the edge off cravings while the nicotine is working its way out of the system.

Other good options for smokers are anti-depressant/anti-anxiety drugs like Chantix and Wellbutrin.

“Other things we look at in the classes are what nicotine does to the body and how it works, and we reflect on trigger situations and healthier alternatives to those triggers,” she said.

The program has been free and open to the public since 2002, said Renea Duffin, the center’s vice president in charge of the Geaux Free program and education and community programs and services. It is funded by a grant from the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living to address cancer mortality in the state.

“Smoking is a major contributor to lung cancer,” Duffin said, “and lung cancer is in the top three cancers within the greater Baton Rouge area.” In additon, she said, smoking has been linked to cancers of the head and neck, and uterine and ovarian cancers in women.

For participants who started smoking before September 1988, she said, nicotine replacement therapies are also free, paid for out of the state’s share of a tobacco lawsuit settlement. Classes are offered at different locations around the city and at different times of day.

Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center partnered with the Department of Health and Hospitals to bring Geaux Free to its employees and people who live or work near downtown, Duffin said, and for those who cannot make set group classes, Stipe offers one-on-one counseling sessions to go through the same course materials.

Through the years, she has seen what a fight it is to quit, and not everyone will be successful the first time.

“You have to be ready, and that’s a personal decision for everybody. What I want to do is make sure they have the tools they need in place to help them when they decide they are ready,” she said.

New sessions begin April 1. For more information, call (225) 215-1370 or register online at www.marybird.org/olol/geauxfree.