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Cigarettes Part II: How Not to Quit Smoking

Consider the following lecture that might be given to a smoker by a concerned friend, relative, or even by their doctor:

“C’mon Joe, do you realize what you’re doing to yourself? The facts are clear…lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema…the risk of all of these increases with smoking. You’re young now but in 30 or 40 years one or more of those disease is going to kill you. Stop thinking just about yourself. You have a young daughter. Don’t you think she deserves to have father when she’s a young woman? Don’t you think she’d like her children to have a grandfather? Don’t be a jerk. Look, I know quitting is hard, but man up and stop this stupid habit.”

Maybe a little harsh, but fair enough, right? The problem is this will be almost 100% ineffective. It may even reduce the chances that the person will quit. Here’s what’s wrong:

  1. Focusing on health effects. People who smoke do not do so in the mistaken belief that they are harmless. Nearly all smokers firmly believe that smoking will kill them. In fact most actually overestimate the risks of smoking. Information and education about the health risks of smoking are essentially meaningless and useless in the effort to quit. What would be the point of “educating” such a person: “While I do want to encourage you to quit smoking, I want to reassure you that the risks of smoking are probably far less than you think.” The keys to successful quitting will be found elsewhere.
  2. Focusing on probabilities. We as human beings are very poor at calculating how risks and probabilities will affect us. When confronted with facts about the risks or probabilities of disease associated with smoking we tend to shut down and tune out.
  3. Focusing on future effects. Similarly we are not good at acting on future consequences of our current behavior. A decade (or three) is a long time from now. We are all more concerned about today, tomorrow, and next week than we are about next year.
  4. Highlighting the difficulty of quitting. Nicotine withdrawal is unpleasant but it’s not the whole story. Concentrating on the difficulty of quitting only discourages the smoker from trying.
  5. Highlighting the shameful aspects of smoking. Guilt is not going to work. Telling a person that he or she is stupid, selfish, or irresponsible for smoking will not be helpful to them and will make you look like a self-righteous jerk.
  6. Ignoring the benefits of smoking.  The what?! Yes, the benefits. Cigarette smoking is incredibly pleasurable and satisfying. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise. In his book, Cigarettes Are Sublime, author Richard Klein poetically captures the beauty of cigarette smoking:

Cigarettes are slim, white facilitators of anticipatory thinking and imaginative hypotheses, instruments of ecstatic projection away from the present to a future time in which the present for a moment no longer exists.”

Absolutely. If you are attempting to persuade someone to quit smoking the first thing you must not do is deny its appeal and attraction.

How To Quit Smoking

The most important thing to understand about quitting smoking is this: It’s easy. Far easier than loosing weight, sticking with an exercise program or doing anything else to improve one’s health. It’s true that nicotine is highly addictive, and it’s true that the withdrawal symptoms are quite unpleasant and my last for several months, and it’s true that that the psychological and social forces driving you to continue smoking are quite strong. So how can it be easy? Here’s how (please note the emphasis):

Repeated Failure Leads To Success;

You Only Have To Succeed Once

 My beloved sterling silver Dunhill lighter that I’ve held on to for 38 years in the event that I start smoking again. What do I do with it now?

My beloved sterling silver Dunhill lighter that I’ve held on to for 38 years in the event that I start smoking again. What do I do with it now?

There are over 50 million ex-smokers in the US. Very few of them succeeded in quitting on their first attempt. My own failed attempts numbered in the dozens. But, unlike many things in life, repeated failure does not indicate a fundamental powerlessness. Each time you attempt and fail you will learn a bit more about the process. You will learn how to avoid certain smoking triggers. If you have tried and failed multiple times to quit smoking, that simply means that the next time you try, your chances of success will improve slightly. And the time after that. And the time after that. One day you will succeed.

But here’s the best part: You only have to succeed once. As each day, week, and month passes as a non-smoker, the effort required to remain a non-smoker diminishes. At the beginning of the process it’s difficult for a smoker to believe that it’s possible to not even care about cigarettes. But at some point that becomes true. I have been a non-smoker for about 38 years and for the last 37 years the effort required to remain a non-smoker is zero.

Use All The Tools

A large percentage of ex-smokers just quit and toughed it out on their own. That has a success rate of about 5%. By all means give it a shot if that’s how you’d like to proceed and eventually you will succeed. But there are many other tools available to help you quit that can increase the success rate to almost 30%. These include:

  • Nicotine replacement therapy (Patches or gum)
  • Cognitive-behavior therapy
  • Support groups
  • Quit lines
  • Wellbutrin (a prescription anti-depressant)
  • Chantix (a prescription medication that blocks the effects of nicotine)

In addition to these formal and well researched interventions there is a lot of wisdom from ex-smokers on what got them over the hump. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Go Public. Putting a little bit of pressure on yourself is fine. In the past this meant telling a few friends, but today you can announce to the entire Facebook Universe (or whomever) that you are attempting to quit. Might you have to also announce that you’ve failed? Probably, but who cares?
  2. Exercise. Obviously. Exercise will help directly by giving you a little endorphin boost and distracting you from your cravings. If you can push yourself to exercise vigorously you’ll feel your lungs burning and you may induce some coughing fits. It sort of feels like you’re actually cleansing your lungs from the tobacco toxins. You’re not, really, but so what…go with this image, it’s a helpful metaphor.
  3. Make a deal with yourself. I’ve made a point of emphasizing the pleasure of smoking. When you give of smoking you give up a lot. A lot of pleasure, a lot of enjoyment, a lot of fun. If you never smoked you will never understand these things, but they are real. And it’s very difficult to face a future without these things. So, make a pact with yourself. Tell yourself that this is not forever. Yes, you’re going to give up cigarettes, but only until you get old. Once you reach a healthy old age and have dodged most of the harms of cigarettes you can enjoy your retirement by taking up smoking again. I made this deal with myself when I quit and I may have reached the age when I’m supposed to start again…Ive forgotten that age I set for myself. But I have no intention of doing so because I don’t care about cigarettes anymore. And You won’t either but knowing that this is possible is a comfort to the new ex-smoker.
  4. The sweater trick. A little bit of self-shaming is OK. Take a wool sweater or shirt or whatever heavy item of clothing you may have worn recently when you were smoking. Without laundering it place it in a big plastic bag and seal it tight. If you get past the first week or so your sense of smell will have rebounded. Open that bag and stick your nose in it. You will be appalled. Imagine that you have been walking around smelling like this. Keep this bag around for a month or two and then when you’re feeling confident ceremoniously launder or dry clean the apparel and proudly wear it.

A final note: I have not mentioned e-cigarettes in this post because the topic is quite complex and deserves a full discussion on its own. However, if you are today a cigarette smoker and are wondering if you should try e-cigarettes, the answer is yes. Details to follow.


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