As any past or current smoker knows, quitting smoking is not easy. It involves overcoming a full-blown addiction.
Cold turkey or a gradual approach? Chantix or Nicorette? Three men who tried everything tell you what really works
Back in 1964, we received our first official warning against smoking. That’s when the U.S. Surgeon General released a report saying cigarette smoking actually causes lung cancer. And over the last 50 years, the evidence that smoking is responsible for a host of health problems has only increased.
Now, we also know that it raises your risk of heart disease, stroke, erectile dysfunction, and other types of cancer, including cancers of the bladder, colon, esophagus, kidney, larynx, pancreas, and stomach.
The good news is that fewer Americans than ever are picking up cigarettes. In 1965, 42 percent of Americans smoked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2015, the number had dropped to just 15 percent, the CDC says.
But those numbers don’t mean much to those who are still puffing away. As any past or current smoker knows, quitting smoking is not easy—it involves overcoming a full-blown addiction.
Still, stubbing out the smokes is possible. And just as everyone differs in how they picked up the habit and what triggers them to light up, the effectiveness of quitting techniques differs from person to person, too. So if one technique doesn’t work for you, don’t think you’re destined to smoke forever—you might just respond better to another method.
Allow these 3 men—former smokers, some who sucked down as many as two packs a day—to explain the struggles and strategies that ultimately led them to a hard-earned new status: nonsmoker.
Name: Jay R., 31, Scranton, PA
Years he smoked: 13
How he quit: Chantix
After Jay joined a frat in college, he started hitting up keggers, where he reached for his first cigarette.
At first, he only smoked when he drank, but then he started lighting up at other times too, like to de-stress when studying or to cap off a good meal. By the time he graduated, he was smoking nearly a pack a day, spending nearly $250 a month on a habit that was slowly killing him.
Carrying laundry up the stairs winded him. He coughed up black gunk every morning. He stopped what he was doing to go outside to smoke every two hours.
He knew the cigarettes were making him feel lousy, but when he decided to start his health food company, Meal Prep Grind, that’s when he knew he needed to quit.
“You have to live the life,” he says. “You can’t show up with someone’s healthy food smoking a cig out the window of your delivery vehicle and have McDonald’s bags on the passenger seat.”
So he quit smoking cold turkey. And it lasted all of 5 hours, he says.
For many guys, quitting cold turkey is unsuccessful, says Bill Blatt, M.P.H., the director of Tobacco Programs for the American Lung Association. That’s because it works under the approach that quitting is solely a willpower thing—that if you have enough motivation to quit, you can easily kick the habit.
But that’s ignoring the physical factors involved, which is a big mistake. The nicotine found in tobacco is addicting, and when your body stops getting it, you feel withdrawal symptoms like headache, depression, anxiety, irritability, altered sleep, and nervousness, says Norman Edelman, M.D., a pulmonologist and professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
That’s where quit-smoking medication comes in. Nicotine-replacement options—gum, patches, nasal spray, inhalers, and lozenges—provide a low level dose of nicotine, which help alleviate the withdrawal symptoms, Dr. Edelman says.
But there are meds that can help you kick the habit without giving you any nicotine at all. For instance, Chantix works by blocking nicotine receptors in your brain, reducing the “high” you get from smoking and making it easier to give up the habit, explains Dr. Edelman.
For Jay, Chantix was the ticket to quitting—though his 20-day regimen wasn’t easy.
“Taking Chantix blows,” he says. “It might be one of the most uncomfortable things I've ever done.”
Within minutes of his daily morning dose, Jay felt like he was going to throw up. He also noticed a lack of energy and bizarre dreams—“the kind that leave you pissed off all day, and you can’t quite remember why.”
Then, about two weeks into the process, Jay was having a few beers with his friends when he caved and smoked a cigarette. The next morning, he started again from day one.
That’s not unusual: “It takes most folks a couple of times to quit,” reminds Blatt. Sometimes it may take up to 30 times to successfully quit, as we previously reported.
The best thing you can do is not beat yourself up over it—and just focus on refining your plan to emphasize what works and eliminate what doesn’t.
For Jay, that meant not drinking again until he was 30 days smoke-free. Now, he’s gone 12 weeks without smoking a cigarette.
He still gets cravings. He still loves the smell of smoke. But he’s remained determined. “I changed my job, I changed my nighttime activities (no more smoking, no more bars), I changed a whole lot, so quitting cigarettes feels like just a small part of a bigger overall life change.”
And overall, life sans cigs is much better, Jay says. “I get more done. I sleep better. I have more money to spend on things I enjoy.”
Name: Nick G., 32, Philadelphia, PA
How long he smoked: 8 years
How he quit: Exercise and stress-relief
In the middle of a cold winter nine years ago, Nick—who smoked a pack a day—came down with a killer cold.
“I was violently coughing for a week. I thought I was dying, and then made the decision to stop.”
He thought gradually reducing his smokes would work, so he would try to smoke one or two fewer cigarettes each day. But that didn’t work—he found himself slipping up and smoking more. He needed to break up with the substance once and for all.
So instead, he replaced cigarette breaks with trips to the gym and extra walks with his dog at night.
Exercise is a technique that works, especially when it comes to beating the mental side of addiction, says Blatt. That’s because the high that comes from a good sweat session is similar to the one that comes from lighting up.
“I'd never really worked out before,” Nick says. “It was a good distraction and it also relieved the stress and cravings that came with quitting.”
Another perk to exercise? Working out can help you avoid the weight gain that many smokers experience when they quit, says Blatt.
There are a few reasons quitting can lead to weight gain: For one, nicotine suppresses your appetite, so when you don’t have steady stream of it, you might find yourself feeling hungrier. Nicotine also speeds up your metabolism, so quitting can cause the pounds to pack on faster.
Another reason: “Smoking dulls your taste buds, so when you quit, your taste buds revive and food tastes better,” says Blatt.
Plus, in an effort to replace the habit of doing something with your hands and mouth, you might end up eating more.
Of course, change doesn’t come easy. At first, Nick felt on-edge and was coughing a lot. “I felt like shit, but then it got better and easier. I started to feel less dirty and just overall more energetic.”
Blatt says that when you quit, the first couple weeks—and more specifically, the first two days—are rough. That’s when you’ll experience the strongest cravings, making it the most likely time for quitters to relapse.
That’s why Nick’s message is right on: “Don’t try to just quit and carry on your normal life. Find a replacement for the cigarettes. For me that was the treadmill and walks with my dog Berger through the city at night.”
It worked for him—he hasn’t touched a cigarette in 8 years.
Name: Jonathan S., 51, Boston, MA
How long he smoked: 23 years
How he quit: Gradually
Jonathan’s father was a heart and lung surgeon who smoked for years, and had a terrible time giving it up. (In fact, he only kicked the habit when Jonathan, then 11, stole his cigarettes on a rafting trip one day, and he quit cold turkey.)
You could say Jonathan picked up the habit from Dad: For 23 years—from age 14 to 37—he smoked, at one point sucking down two packs a day.
“I gradually started to want to quit when I realized that I didn’t enjoy nine out of 10 of the cigarettes I smoked,” he says.
To Jonathan, cigs were an automatic response. Cup of coffee? Light up. Cocktail? Light up. Get in the car? Light up.
So he started to cut back.
“I began rolling my own cigarettes, too, on the reasoning that if you had to work for it, it was less of a knee-jerk.” That changed smoking from a mindless habit to a deliberate effort.
He reduced his smoking to just two or three cigarettes a day. “Then I just quit one day and never looked back. Never wanted a cigarette, either.”
This worked for Jonathan, but in other cases, cutting down gradually can backfire—people find themselves rebounding to their previous level of smoking, says Blatt. That’s because their bodies are used to getting a certain amount of nicotine.
And you’re not making the decision to quit, so it’s easier mentally to justify reaching for that extra cigarette, he says.
Plus, of course, there’s no safe level of tobacco use, he notes.
But for Jonathan, gradually weaning off the cigs—and making smoking a deliberate effort rather than a knee-jerk habit—was enough to make him realize how much time it took away from his life. And that’s what stoked his motivation to quit entirely.
“I just sort of said one day, ‘This doesn’t really serve me well,’ and that was it.”