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Dentists can play key role in helping patients quit smoking

ADA offers resources to help clinicians start conversations about tobacco

November 14, 2017

By Michelle Manchir

Photo of Larry Williams
Dr. Williams
Dr. Larry Williams' patients on the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier needed help quitting smoking.

It was 1985, and Dr. Williams was starting his career as a Navy dentist. To meet his patients' requests, he took it upon himself to get trained by the state's chapter of the American Cancer Society on tobacco cessation techniques. Since then, though now retired from the Navy, Dr. Williams estimates he's helped hundreds of patients quit tobacco.

November is an apt time for dental professionals to talk with patients about quitting smoking and the dangers of tobacco and nicotine on their health. On the third Thursday of each November, the American Cancer Society holds The Great American Smokeout, a day intended to inspire people to make a plan to quit smoking or to quit smoking on that day. This year, The Great American Smokeout is Nov. 16. For more information about The Great American Smokeout, visit

Dr. Williams hopes to encourage other dentists to talk with their patients about tobacco cessation. He leads an online ADA continuing education course, Tobacco Policy, Pharmacotherapy, and Dentistry, that includes information about training opportunities for dental health professionals who want to learn more about tobacco cessation pharmacotherapy. Dr. Williams also covers the past, current and future directions of tobacco policy and discusses over-the-counter nicotine delivery systems. It offers one CE credit.

Image of Great American Smokeout logo For Dr. Williams, who is an associate professor at Midwestern University College of Dental Medicine-Illinois, providing patients with oral health education and oral health resources, including tobacco cessation resources for those who need it, is a "duty."

"Often, the first signs of damage from tobacco, in any form, are in the oral cavity," he said.

Dr. Williams said some dentists can be hesitant to broach the topic of tobacco cessation with patients, but there are ways to do it without feeling like you're badgering them. One way is to simply ask the question to patients who are known users: Would you like to quit? If they say yes, they've invited the health care professional to proceed with a discussion about it.

Dr. Williams also suggests passive forms of informing patients, such as leaving flyers or brochures about the topic in a waiting room or other patient areas.

To be sure, patient readiness for the discussion is key, said Dr. Nevin Zablotsky, a senior consultant and lecturer at Nova Southeastern University College of Dental Medicine, aiding in the development and integration of tobacco education for dental students.

Dr. Zablotsky said he's encountered patients who are defensive about their tobacco use, but dentists can still assure them that resources are available for them if they ever are ready to pursue them.

"You're doing the right thing by approaching the topic," Dr. Zablotsky said. "It may not always be easy and it's not a reflection on you if they don't listen."

Photo of Nevin Zablotsky
Dr. Zablotsky
Because cigarette smoking can lead to gingival recession, impaired healing following periodontal therapy, oral cancer, mucosal lesions, periodontal disease and tooth staining, not bringing up the issue with patients in the dental chair "is like not addressing the elephant in the room," said Dr. Zablotsky. He added, "I have found that working with tobacco addicted patients can be one of the most gratifying experiences of ones' dental professional career."

Other ways dentists can get information on this topic is through an ADA Science Institute-developed Oral Health Topics page, which discusses tobacco cessation methods, dental considerations when it comes to tobacco use and other relevant and evidence-based information.

The ADA also has brochures available for purchase that discuss the benefits of quitting smoking. "Tobacco and Oral Health" and "Get the Facts about Mouth and Throat Cancer" are available to order from or by calling 800-947-4746. Buyers can save 15 percent on all ADA Catalog products with promo code 17161 until Dec. 29.

Earlier this year, the ADA and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center announced a collaboration to focus on tobacco cessation and increasing HPV vaccinations for oropharyngeal cancer prevention.