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“Little Montreal tornado” lays groundwork for the Chest’s smoking cessation program

Nearly 30 years before the Montreal Chest Institute’s renowned Smoking Cessation Clinic opened in 1996, a fiery self-proclaimed smoking therapist arrived on the scene to help rid Montrealers of their smoking habit.

It was 1968 when Bernice Lurie, dubbed by the Montreal Gazette as “a little Montreal tornado,” threw away her cigarettes, dubbed herself a smoking therapist and launched an anti-smoking campaign at the Royal Edward Chest Hospital (now the Montreal Chest Institute).

The newspaper reported that 12 months later, 15 per cent of the chronic smokers she visited had given up the habit.

The “pint-sized” mother of two grown sons boasted that the Royal Edward was likely the first Canadian hospital to implement such a therapy program.

“I’ll bet I’m the first smoking therapist in Canada,” she told the paper.

Lurie admitted she was “no saint,” having smoked 50 cigarettes a day up until a year and a half earlier. “I’d be the last person to tell anyone to stop smoking completely, immediately,” she said, but did have an arsenal of tips to help smokers gradually kick their addiction.

Bernice Lurie’s smoking cessation tips

  • Remove all ash trays around the house. (“The power of suggestion,” as she called it.)
  • Remove cigarettes from night tables. (“It’s too easy to reach over and light up.”
  • Never carry matches. (“But never.”)
  • Keep cigarettes in some other place in your pockets than the one they’re usually in.
  • Figure out which cigarettes of the day are absolutely critical and try to smoke only those.

Perhaps her most famous suggestion was a yoga breathing exercise meant to relax tension.  “Now, watch and listen… Every time you get tensed up and want to reach for a cigarette try this: place one finger against the side of one nostril and breathe in through the other nostril to the count of four,” she explained. “Hold your breath till a further count of eight and then breathe out through the other nostril. Now reverse the procedure using the other nostril.”

When gentle suggestion failed, she never hesitated to whip out a jar containing a cancerous lung preserved in formaldehyde to “scare the hell” out of smokers. “See that. That’s what cancer looks like,” she would tell them.

It was reported that the photographer present for the interview got so nervous when he saw the lung that he promptly lit a cigarette.

Lurie worked on a voluntary basis with no budget. And she likely never imagined the impact she would have on the evolution of smoking cessation initiatives at the hospital and the countless smokers who would benefit from them.

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