Medicare Helps Smokers Quit: Should Government Bail Them Out Too?

smoking, cigarette, cessation, generic, istockphoto
It's never too late to quit smoking, experts say. (iStockPhoto)

(CBS/AP) The government has another bailout on the books... this time it's a plan to help older smokers kick the habit.

Medicare is finally catching up with most private insurers by providing counseling for anyone on the program who is trying to quit smoking.

Experts say it's never too late, even for lifelong smokers.

"The elderly can respond to smoking cessation counseling even if they have been smoking for 30 years or more," says Dr. Barry Straube, Medicare's chief medical officer. "We do know we can see a reduction in the death rate and complications from smoking-related illnesses." Not only cancer, heart disease and lung problems, which can kill, but also gastric reflux, osteoporosis and other ailments that undermine quality of life.

There are an estimated 4.5 million older smokers in the U.S., or about one in 10. Among the population as a whole, one in five people smoke.

Medicare, the government health insurance program for seniors and the disabled, already covers drugs used to help smokers quit, as well as counseling for those who have developed a smoking-related illness. But starting immediately, the program will expand the benefit to cover up to eight counseling sessions a year.

Next year, such counseling will be free, under a provision in President Barack Obama's health care law that eliminates co-payments for preventive services.

Smoking related illnesses currently cost the government tens of billions each year. With any luck, helping seniors quit smoking will bring that bill down.

Medicare's new smoking cessation benefit will also be available to younger people who are covered by the program because of a disability. About 1 million of them are smokers.

Older smokers often don't get as much attention from doctors as do younger ones. "They just figure, 'Well, it's too late,'" says Straube, that the damage is already done. That may start to change now.

Many older smokers started when it was fashionable to light up. They are more likely than younger smokers to be seriously hooked on nicotine and less likely to attempt quitting. But research shows that their odds of success are greater if they do try to give up the habit.

It's unclear why older people who try to quit have better luck than younger smokers.

Some experts think it's because older smokers are more motivated, perhaps from having seen a loved one die of cancer or heart disease, or by recognizing how the cigarette habit has left its mark in their own bodies, anything from wrinklier skin to shortness of breath.

Straube has his own theory: "They're under less stress," he said. "They are not working anymore, and they have more time."

Should the government provide free counseling for smokers trying to quit?