How to quit smoking cigarettes
Disclaimer – this will not work for everyone. In fact, it is very, very hard to do. Quitting cigarettes is the hardest thing I have ever done.
I will start out with how and why I got started, for those nonsmokers who think (and rightly so) that I am an idiot for ever starting in the first place.
If you don't smoke tobacco, I urge you to never start. But if you start, here's what worked for me, and what didn't.
17 in 69
In 1969, everybody smoked. There was no social stigma as now. Mothers smoked as they nursed their babies. Doctors smoked. Nurses smoked. Nearly every adult smoked. They sold candy that looked like cigarettes to kids, in authentic looking boxes, with real cigarette brands. Parents would send their eight year old kids to the store to buy cigarettes for them, and give the kid an extra fifteen cents for some soda or gum as payment for fetching the cigarettes.
You could light up a cigarette almost anywhere that there wasn't anything flammable. In bars, restaurants, stores. The doctor's office waiting room had ash trays. The few adults that didn't smoke had ash trays in their homes for their smoking friends. All white walls were off-white from the smoke.
High school teachers' lounges had ash trays. You could smoke in a college classroom, in a store, on an airplane. About the only places you couldn't smoke was in church, an elevator, or a pre-college school room.
Both my parents smoked, as did everyone else's. I hated it. I suspect, though, that I was addicted to nicotine long before I lit my first cigarette.
When I would be in a carload of friends as a teenager, I would gag on the smoke. I was the first to roll down the window in the winter and yell “Freeze out!”
This was what got me started: I discovered, though I don't remember how or why, that if I was smoking a cigarette, the smoke wouldn't bother me. When I was in a car load of kids, I'd bum one in order to breathe.
My dad found my smokes; I wasn't in trouble. “Don't expect me to buy 'em for you.” At thirty cents a pack, there was no need.
Stopping, but only because I had to
I joined the Air Force when I was 19, and when we couldn't smoke at all for the first two weeks, I discovered to my amazement that I was addicted to them. I kept a couple of packs in my footlocker, and would sneak one in the toilet stall, next to the exhaust fan, at night. I had one of those plastic things you could strap them to your leg with, for the first time we were allowed to have a smoke.
The time finally came. “Smoke 'em if you got 'em.” Man, I was the most popular guy in the squadron! And I actually copped a buzz on the cigarette.
After basic training, I thought often about quitting. Especially those times I didn't have the thirty five cents for a pack of smokes, or the three dollars for a carton.
After the Air Force when I was in college, I had very, very little money, and the cost of cigarettes kept rising. Non-smokers started becoming more numerous, and vocal. I decided to quit.
Quitting... almost... the first time... and again...
I lasted maybe 4 hours. I quit quitting for a year.
They came out with a quitting system called “One Step At A Time”, where you bought 4 holders that would filter the smoke. The first “filter” was just a holder, and the last let in nothing but air. You were supposed to go through the 4 filters, then quit.
I went through the whole deal. At the end of the last filter, with one cigarette left, I stuck it in the filter and asked myself, do you really want this cigarette?
Hell yes! I threw away the filter and smoked it. GOD it was heavenly.
A year later, I went cold turkey for a month. I had a doctor prescribe Valium so I wouldn't murder anyone. The Valium made me want a cigarette worse.
So I threw the pills away... okay, I sold them. And decided to go cold turkey. It lasted a month.
If you've ever smoked cigarettes, you know that there are certain triggers that make you really crave one. After eating, while drinking coffee, while drinking beer... I was sharing a six pack with a friend who hadn't smoked in five years. I really wanted a cigarette.
“How long until I don't want one any more?”
He said he still wanted one. I went for another six pack – and some smokes.
It was years before I seriously tried quitting again. I hated being addicted to them, but I enjoyed them so much! In fact, I didn't even try again until my wife was pregnant with our first child, and she couldn't smoke. Literally. The smell of a cigarette sent her running to the bathroom to puke.
I wound up smoking outside most of the time.
Around 1998 I saw my chance, as the wife wanted to quit. By then, everybody was quitting or had quit, and you couldn't smoke at work. I hated going outside in the heat and cold for a butt. We got the patches, and I started learning a few things.
One thing that surprised me was that the habit was as strong as the physical addiction! This is what the patches are good for, getting you over the habit. When I smoked, as I walked down the stairs at work I would pull out that beloved cigarette and have it ready for a light as I walked through the door. A full year after I finally did quit, I was still slapping my pocket as I went down the stairs!
How not to quit
You cannot quit a step at a time. You can't “cut down”. You can't gradually quit. When you quit, you have to quit. You have to make the decision that you will never, ever smoke another cigarette again.
I knew this, as I had not only had everyone who had ever successfully quit tell me, but I had tried to cut down gradually enough times I knew it wouldn't work.
We decided to try the patches. The patches actually get you over the habit, so you can concentrate on not smoking, and then get over the nicotine addiction more gradually.
We bought patches, and went three weeks without a cigarette. I had a “killer urge” and had to have a cigarette. There was some tobacco and rolling papers in the house. I rolled up a cigarette.
One puff was all it took. It was nasty. Horrible. “Must have been the patches,” I thought, and threw it away and brushed my teeth.
We went through the full patch, half patch, quarter patch, no patch (I'll go into detail shortly). I had been off the patches for a few days, and had another killer urge I couldn't resist. Again I rolled a cigarette. Again I took one, nasty puff and threw it away. “Must be because it was a roll your own.”
Another month went by, and I had yet another “killer” urge. So did my wife; we had been arguing. She went next door and bummed two Marlboros. I lit mine – and it tasted exactly like the roll your own! I was free at last! Never again would I have to smoke!
Yet another month went by, and we were at a party. We were the only people there not smoking, and we were drinking beer. I had another killer urge, and bummed a Winston. I took a nasty puff. Exactly like the Marlboro, exactly like the roll your own. But I had bummed it, and couldn't just take one puff and throw it away. By the time I got to the butt, it tasted damned good. My wife bummed one too.
You can never, EVER smoke a cigarette if you quit, any more than a heroin addict can have another shot, a coke addict can have another snort, or an alcoholic can have another drink. You are an addict. That is the nature of addiction.
The next day, we went for a walk, stopped at a gas station “for a Pepsi,” and wound up with a pack of cigarettes, each savoring one of the precious, delightful sticks. In a month we were each back to a pack a day.
Quitting... at last. And the pitfalls
I decided, long before the commercials about giving up butts for new years, that my nicotine would be a twentieth century addiction. I was going to take my last puff on New Years Eve 1999, and see the new century cigarette free.
Making the decision months in advance helped greatly, I am convinced. If you quit on a whim, you will start back up on a whim.
When using the patches, go 3 or 4 weeks on a full patch. It will seem like you have quit; you will have the urges, even though your body is getting its nicotine. Put your patch on first thing in the morning, and leave it on until the next morning.
Clean the spot where the patch will go with rubbing alcohol, as you will likely get skin lesions if not (and maybe if you do).
After the first 3 or 4 weeks, you can cut the patch in half with a scissors, and put on a half a patch. It will work as well as a full sized half strength patch, at half the cost. When you go to the half patch, it will again feel like quitting. You did it before, you can do it again.
Two weeks after that, go for a quarter patch. Two weeks after that, don't use any more patches.
The worst is over. You will have some bad times you really want a cigarette, but don't give in! One cigarette, and you're back at square one again.
When quitting, even while on the patch, there are certain times you will want a cigarette very, very badly. It is a stronger urge than the urge for sex, or food. Needing a cigarette is a terrible thing.
You will want a cigarette after eating, when drinking alcohol, when drinking coffee, leaving work, and when you smell sidestream smoke. You will want a cigarette when you are angry, and you will want a cigarette when you smell bad smells.
Nicotine is a stimulant, and like many other stimulants is an appetite suppressant. This is the reason you want a cigarette when you are hungry, it takes the edge off of the hunger. It is also the reason many people gain weight after quitting; the appetite isn't suppressed, and the metabolism is slower.
After eating, a cigarette makes you feel more satisfied. It also releases certain brain chemicals associated with pleasure. When drinking coffee, the two stimulants combine, and the coffee stimulation makes you want the nicotine stimulation.
Alcohol is a depressant, so your body wants the counteracting stimulant.
When you are angry, you have both the chemical release that tends to calm you down, despite its being a stimulant, plus it gives you a “time out.”
Another dangerous pitfall is the fact that since you can't smoke inside most public buildings, you will smell the smoke as you go in or come out. Imagine a cocaine addict trying to quit if there was a cloud of cocaine floating around the entrance to every building!
You must be aware of these pitfalls, especially within the first six months to a year after your last cigarette, because it takes six months to completely rid your body of the nicotine.
Replace your rituals.
After eating, it is helpful to brush your teeth thoroughly, and use a strong, unpleasant mouthwash like Listerine. Make it a ritual, and it won't be long before it replaces the cigarette. This has the added benefit of making your visits to the dentist less costly.
One of the supposed “benefits” of not smoking is a heightened sense of smell. This is true, but it is most certainly NOT a benefit! Food smells the same, flowers smell the same, nice smells smell the same. It is the bad odors that you smell more. Having a lessened sense of smell is actually a benefit of smoking. You will have to learn to deal with bad smells.
When you drink coffee, try to do it where you normally couldn't have a smoke with it, such as a non-smoking restaurant, or at work.
If a “killer urge” comes on you, know that it will pass. You will feel better, even if it seems like you never will without a cigarette. Know that if you have a cigarette, you will have to go through the agony of quitting again. You will have the agony of not having a cigarette. Know that after you quit smoking, you can travel on public transportation without the agony of deprival. You can watch an entire movie at a theater, without missing what is almost always the most important ten minutes when you have your cigarette.
For the first several months, stay out of any public place, like bars, where smoking is permitted. Particularly if you are doing an activity you normally associate with heavier than normal smoking, like in a bar or coffee house. Do your drinking at home for the first 6 to 9 months after quitting.
You may find, like I did, that eventually, the activities that used to cause you to want a cigarette, like a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer, get rid of the urges to smoke.
Know that no matter how badly you want that cigarette, if you smoke it, you will want one even more badly tomorrow. Eventually the urges will be gone. I haven't had a cigarette in three years, and although I will never forget how enjoyable they were, I never want to smoke another one. You, too, will be free. Good luck!
May 13, 2003