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October 15, 2004

Busting their butts

A cloud of smoke seemed to surround Jody Smedley. At the Denny’s restaurant in West Palm Beach where Smedley works as a waitress, many of her regular customers smoke cigarettes. One of her favorites, an elderly woman named Marie, was a three-pack-a-day smoker afflicted with emphysema and various other tobacco-related ailments. Marie often looked quite frail.

“But she was one of those people who couldn’t stop,” Smedley says. “She actually would use one cigarette to light another without missing a beat.”

Then, a few months ago, Smedley’s mother, another heavy smoker, was diagnosed with emphysema. Her lung specialist gave her a dire warning: Quit smoking or face the very real possibility of being chained to an oxygen machine for the rest of her life. No doubt, the prognosis was scary, but how in the world, the waitress wondered, could her mother kick her habit after smoking for 40 years?

Smedley, 33, knew how hard it would be to quit, because she, too, was a smoker, inhaling a pack a day for more than 18 years. She had tried to quit cold turkey and even wore a nicotine patch for a while, but none of her attempts worked. Still, she was skeptical when her mother’s doctor suggested they visit a center that claims to cure smoking addiction with a 20-minute, $150 laser treatment.

“Nothing ever worked for me,” Smedley says about why she finally agreed to visit Laser Concept in Port St. Lucie. Two months later, she and her mother are smoke-free. In that time, the waitress has convinced some of her Denny’s customers to undergo the treatment, as well. Marie, for one, hasn’t had a cigarette since.

“She thanked me for saving her life,” Smedley says. “She said she had tried everything: the patches, nicotine gum, even hypnotherapy.”

Husband and wife Andrew and Rita Taylor, who co-own Laser Concept with his mother, Janet Taylor, opened the Port St. Lucie location two years ago. Janet Taylor had founded the company in Fort Erie, Ontario, in 1989 after using laser therapy to beat her nicotine addiction. “About 85 percent of our clients come from referrals,” Andrew Taylor says. “We get people from all walks of life — old people, young people, ordinary housewives, businessmen, police officers.”

“When you see that you’ve helped somebody, it gives you a good feeling,” says Rita Taylor. “People come to us and say, ‘You’ve saved my life.’ ”

Smedley is the first to admit that using a laser to quit smoking seems far-fetched. “When I told customers at the restaurant about it, they asked, ‘How can a laser help you to quit smoking?’ ” she says.

As it turns out, lasers have been used to stem nicotine addiction in other parts of the world since the 1980s. Unlike the lasers that surgeons use to slice and burn effortlessly through tissue, the instrument used by smoking technicians is known as a cold laser. Not only does this type of laser give off no heat, but it inflicts no pain. The patient only feels the slight touch of the metal end of the instrument, which resembles an electric toothbrush. The laser technician simply touches the wand to several points on the client’s body — mostly on the head — for about 20 minutes. The Taylors say the process targets the same places on the body as acupuncture.

The Independent Review Board, which does research for the Food and Drug Administration, has released several studies on cold lasers. The board has found that the laser stimulates production of endorphins, which suppress a person’s need for nicotine. While the endorphin rush is only supposed to last about two weeks after a single treatment, the Taylors and their clients claim it is enough to cure their physical — though not psychological — cravings.

Cold-laser treatments to cure smoking addictions are most popular in Canada and Europe. Scientific studies by government health agencies in Europe generally show that about 50 percent of people who undergo laser therapy will quit for at least a year. While that number may not seem great, the results are favorable compared to other quit-smoking programs. The American Cancer Society reports that about 25 percent of people using nicotine gum or patches will stop smoking for six months. Quitting cold turkey, meanwhile, is about 10 percent effective. Both the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association consider laser treatment a “resource” for quitting smoking. However, neither agency will endorse any product to curb smoking. (Laser Concept also offers cold-laser treatments for weight control or pain relief, but the treatments for smoking are by far its most requested.)

The FDA, meanwhile, has yet to approve cold lasers for this kind of treatment. But several companies around the country that offer it are allowed to conduct treatments as part of a national study to determine if FDA approval is warranted. “I’m told we’re only four to six months away from finding out,” Andrew Taylor says.

Because cold-laser centers are now so far-flung, it’s not unusual for people to travel great distances for treatment. “We have one guy who flew in by helicopter,” says Jeff Wakefield, a manager at Laser Concept’s Port St. Lucie office. “I can’t tell you who, because he is very well-known, but he came back with a bunch of other people.”

“He flew right in and landed the helicopter in the empty lot next door,” Andrew Taylor adds.

John Martin, a producer for ESPN Radio (760-AM) in West Palm Beach, says he was a pack-a-day smoker for 10 years before he visited Laser Concept in July. “I tried quitting once, for about a day and a half,” the 28-year-old says. “And I was in such a foul mood that I gave up. [Now,] I will never smoke another cigarette again.

“I was incredibly skeptical before I first went in,” he continues. “But now, I absolutely believe in it. I told my roommate’s mother about it, and she was smoking for 40 years. And she hasn’t smoked since she’s gone.”

Martin says the best part of the treatment was its lack of side effects. “That was the strangest thing,” he explains. “You just don’t feel like smoking. The only thing you have to deal with is the mental aspect of smoking. Like, after you eat, your mind says, ‘It’s time to have a cigarette.’ But all you have to do is get your mind on something else and the craving goes away just like that.”

Contact Jim Di Paola at


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