By Liz Plosser
More than 1.3 million people successfully quit smoking each year, according the American Heart Association. And that’s great news, because smoking puts puffers at risk for a number of life-threatening illnesses, like heart disease and lung cancer. More good news: Of the more than four in five smokers who say they want to quit each year, 20 to 40 percent of them actually do it.
Whether you’re gearing up to quit for the first or fifteenth time, there are a few strategies that can help increase your odds of success. First, set a quit date—it should be within two weeks—and tell your family, friends, and coworkers about your decision. This makes you accountable when you’re tempted to light up. Then, identify your triggers. Anticipating potential challenges can help you sidestep them. Begin by removing tobacco-related products from your environment—ditch the lighter in your handbag and toss the ashtray in your kitchen. Once you’ve set your quit date, you can get a head start by avoiding smoking in places where you spend a lot of time, like your car or outside of your office. You’ll thank us later, when you’re less tempted to light up the second you walk outside for your lunch break.
Next, figure out what kind of quitting support you need based on your personality. Check out the examples below to see if any of them sound like you, then read on to learn which cessation options might help you. (As always, check in with your doctor before taking any drug or medication, even if it’s over-the-counter.)
If you don’t think you can quit cold turkey
You may want to try: Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)
The goal of NRT is to help wean yourself off of nicotine, the addictive chemical in cigarettes, and avoid withdrawal symptoms by gradually reducing your exposure to the chemical. The small dose of nicotine you’ll get from an NRT product is much safer and healthier than the much higher levels of nicotine—and tar and other additives—you’d be inhaling if you lit up. Your choices include the nicotine patch, a small, bandage-like patch (it’s very discreet) that supplies a steady dose of nicotine throughout the day. Nicotine gum, which is just as it sounds, gum that provides a dose of nicotine (and also gives you an oral fix). Similarly, nicotine lozenges help soothe cravings by dissolving slowly in your mouth. A nicotine nasal spray is best for people who are having serious withdrawal symptoms or are battling a pack-a-day-or-more habit. And finally, there’s a nicotine inhaler, a fake cigarette that delivers nicotine every time you inhale. Many ex-smokers say this is one of the most effective therapies because aside from the nicotine hit, you also get the hand-mouth movement of smoking a real cigarette.
If extra support makes you feel warm and fuzzy
You may want to try: A support group
Kudos for telling your friends and family about your decision to quit. Next up: Tell a stranger. If you subscribe to the there’s-strength-in-numbers thinking, then check out a cessation website, such as Quitnet.com, which has thousands of members trying to kick the habit and will email you tips and reminders about quitting. (The site also has a feature that helps you calculate how much moolah you’re saving by skipping the smokes, in case you needed a little more incentive.) Or dial up a quitline (call 800-QUIT NOW to find the quitline for your state) staffed by trained counselors who will help you choose a path for quitting and provide you with coping mechanisms. There are also support groups, such as SMART Recovery (smartrecovery.org), which sponsors face-to-face meetings in cities across the country and holds at least 16 online meetings a week.
If you’re open to alternative therapies
You may want to try: Hypnosis or acupuncture
So-called alternative medicine—such as hypnosis and acupuncture—is hardly alternative these days: A 2007 government survey found that 38 percent of Americans had used some form of complementary therapy within the past year. Results from a 2008 study reported that those who wore nicotine patches and also participated in two hour-long hypnotherapy sessions were more almost 10 percent more likely to quit smoking than those who used the patches alone. As for acupuncture, studies have been inconclusive on how effective the Chinese therapy is for smoking cessation. The thinking is that the small needles inserted into areas that affect energy flow to the mouth, lungs and respiratory system as well as parts of the brain that generate cravings for tobacco smoke ultimately decrease your desire to smoke. At the very least, acupuncture is very relaxing, so there’s no harm in trying it.
If you’ve tried everything else to no avail or you want to fast-forward to the most aggressive options
You may want to try: Prescription meds
Bupropion (Zyban) is a mild prescription antidepressant that’s thought to reduce the urge to smoke by elevating levels of a feel-good hormone called dopamine and simultaneously thwarting withdrawal symptoms. Your other medication option is Varenicline (Chantix). This drug targets one of the same brain receptors as nicotine, which decreases your desire to light up. In clinical trials, it helped 44 percent of smokers quit after 12 weeks. Caveat: The FDA issued a warning about reported links to depression and suicide. Make sure to discuss the pros and cons with your doctor. There’s another drug option on the horizon: An anti-smoking vaccine. In theory, injecting the vaccine would plug up nicotine receptors, totally nixing the pleasurable feeling that comes from puffing, and effectively squelching the addiction. Drug companies are currently testing their vaccines in clinical trials, so it’ll be at least a year or two before one is approved and available to smokers.