I tried step-down filters, chewed gum and got hypnotized. It was acupuncture that ultimately turned me into a non-smoker. Now, more than 20 years after puffing my last cigarette, just the smell makes me nauseous. But it was difficult to get to this point. Evidently, I’m not alone.
Although smoking rates are dropping, 18 percent of the population continues to live in a nicotine haze. That translates into 42.1 million American adults (over 18), with 1,746,000 of them right here in the Chicago area.
Despite rising per-pack taxes and the difficulty in finding a public place to light up, diehard smokers just can’t or won’t kick the habit. News from the medical community doesn’t deter either. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking can be directly correlated to cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases (including emphysema, bronchitis and chronic airway obstruction) and diabetes. Furthermore, up to one-half of all long-term smokers will eventually die from their addiction. Yet, Chicagoans puff on.
Here’s the good news: there are nearly as many ways to quit smoking as there are numbers of cigarette brands. Different methods work for different folks. But those employed in the smoking cessation world agree there are some important components to understand in order to achieve success.
First, a smoker must be ready to quit. Carol Southard, an American Lung Association certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist with Northwestern Medical Group, says there’s a big difference between the desire to quit and making the decision to quit. Rather than focusing on how dangerous tobacco use is, she provides countless techniques on how to live as an ex-tobacco user. “I’ve done this work for over 28 years; in fact I’m the only full-time person in Chicago doing this. All my work is evidence-based. I’ve seen enough to know what the most efficacious modalities are,” Ms. Southard explains.
Kathryn Foulser, manager for Choose Health, the employee wellness program at Rush University Medical Center, reinforces the fact that people have to be ready to quit for themselves. “If you’re ready to quit, any tool will help [get you started].”
Of course, not taking a puff in the first place is ideal, but understanding why people start is also important. And the answer is surprising. “The number one reason isn’t peer pressure as you might expect,” Ms. Southard says. “It’s modeling behavior. Kids living with adult smokers are eight times more likely to become smokers themselves.” Ms. Foulser has similar observations. “People don’t typically start smoking as adults. Rather, it’s short-term thinking, risk behavior, and all the other behaviors synonymous with adolescence.”
And if saving your kids isn’t motivation enough, she offers another good one: “Companies who send their employees to our program sometimes offer a cash incentive and/or an insurance premium discount for taking the course.”
While friends and family members may cheer you on in your mission to quit, how important are support groups? “They’re hugely important,” Ms. Southard says. “And I love leading them. People come in who have nothing else in common except smoking. They all agree that they feel embarrassed and put upon. There’s great support and accountability; they share successes and failures, and gain strength from one another.”
Group education is common with both the Northwestern and Rush programs. They offer the opportunity to talk about myths and scare tactics, as well as educate attendees about the process of quitting. But Ms. Southard shares more surprising news: “It’s harder for women to quit than men. We tend to metabolize nicotine faster than men. And smoking becomes more ritualized.”
That segues into the last point of discussion. The hardest part of ending a relationship with cigarettes is changing the behaviors around the habit. What’s the best way to accomplish that? “Being in the presence of cigarettes or in situations where folks are used to smoking is a trigger,” says Ms. Foulser. “So is increased stress.” Ms. Southard adds, “People keep smoking because it’s the hardest addiction to control, and they don’t have access to credible programs.”
The two biggest takeaways: if you’re smoke-free for just three months, your chances of remaining smoke-free for life are huge, and no matter how long you’ve smoked, your body will benefit from quitting…every single organ. After 15 years, the result is as if you never smoked. That’s good news for me, and hopefully for anyone who’s ever been or anxious to become a quitter along with me.