Although smoking raises your risk of numerous life-threatening health problems, around 42 million Americans are still puffing away. However, about 70 percent of them want to quit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s not as if countless smokers haven’t already tried to stop. Like Mark Twain said, “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.”
Stopping smoking permanently is difficult primarily because of nicotine, a drug found naturally in tobacco, which the American Cancer Society reports is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. Physical dependence on nicotine creates unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when you stop smoking. Many smokers also have a difficult time breaking away from social and emotional connections to smoking — especially while coping with nicotine withdrawal. That’s why you are more likely to quit smoking and give up tobacco for the long haul if you work on breaking both the physical and mental dependence of cigarettes.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all-smokers approach, specific strategies can help you quit, once and for all, by getting over the personal hurdles that have kept you hooked on cigarettes.
Get serious about your health. “Smoking cessation represents the single most important step that smokers can take to enhance the length and quality of their lives,” the U.S. Surgeon General said. When you crave a cigarette, concentrate on the benefits of not lighting up. Quitting smoking lowers the risk of lung and other cancers, heart attack, stroke, chronic lung disease, macular degeneration (a leading cause of blindness), gum disease and asthma.
If you think you’ve smoked so long that quitting won’t make much of a difference in your health, think again. In fact, you’ll gain benefits almost immediately when you quit cigarettes. After just 20 minutes without smoking, heart rate and blood pressure drops. Twelve hours after giving up cigarettes, the carbon monoxide level in your blood returns to normal and after two weeks to three months of no tobacco, circulation improves and lung function increases. A year after giving up cigarettes, your risk of heart disease will be half that of a smoker.
Reduce nicotine cravings with medications. If you are struggling with nicotine withdrawal, medications can help. Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) eases symptoms by providing a small amount of nicotine without any other dangerous chemicals found in cigarettes. As your body becomes accustomed gradually to going without nicotine, the urge to smoke decreases and you can use less NRT.
NRT patches, gum, and lozenges are available over-the-counter. If they don’t seem to help, don’t give up — talk to your doctor about other options that are right for you. Nicotine nasal sprays and inhalers are available by prescription as are the stop-smoking medications bupropion (Zyban) and varenicline (Chantix).
A study of more than 1,500 smokers who cut back on cigarettes and planned to stop smoking entirely over the course of three months found those treated with Chantix significantly increased their success of quitting smoking for good.
"This study is important because this opens the door to treatment for approximately 14 million smokers who have no intention of quitting in the next 30 days but are willing to reduce their smoking rate while working toward a quit attempt," said Jon Ebbert, MD, associate director for research in the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center. "In the past, these smokers may have not received medication therapy, and we want them to know that different approaches are available."
Learn to avoid and cope with smoking triggers. The urge to smoke will come and go but there are some places and events where you are more likely to be tempted to light up again. Parties, bars, driving to work, even watching television in a chair where you used to relax while smoking can be triggers. Identify your personal triggers and plan ahead to avoid as many as possible.
If you feel yourself heading for a smoking relapse in a triggering situation, wait at least 10 minutes and the urge will lessen. Write down or say out loud the reasons why quitting smoking is more important than having a cigarette, including feeling better, protecting your loved ones from second-hand smoke, and saving money. Keeping your hands busy to distract yourself from lighting up and chewing gum or popping a sugar-free candy into your mouth can help, too.
Beat stress without smoking. Many people smoke when they are in stressful situations, and giving up cigarettes is stressful. While this may sound like a Catch-22 situation, that doesn’t mean you can’t beat stress and smoking at the same time. If you find yourself in a stressful situation, take a break, even for a few minutes. Instead of lighting up, try deep, slow breathing. Walking or other physical activity is also helpful. More than a distraction from smoking, exercise causes your body to produce natural mood lifting and stress reducing chemicals.
Research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found even people who are struggling with sources of stress such as depression, anxiety, and alcohol addiction can safely quit smoking — and the odds are mental health will improve, too.
"We don't know if their mental health improves first and then they are more motivated to quit smoking or if quitting smoking leads to an improvement in mental health," said lead investigator Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, PhD. "But either way, our findings show a strong link between quitting and a better psychiatric outlook."
Know where to get help. Reach out to friends and family who understand and support your goal to give up smoking permanently. Finding a support group in your area can also help you remain committed to quitting cigarettes forever. Visit Smokefree, created by the National Cancer Institute, for online tips and resources for living a tobacco-free and healthy life. The American Heart Association offers extensive stop smoking information at Quitters Win. You can download the American Cancer Society’s free “Guide to Quitting Smoking."
If you are struggling with staying on course to quit smoking and need immediate assistance, connect with someone who understands and can help with these free hotlines:
Local and state telephone quit lines:
May 01, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA