Here’s a sobering thought: In any given year, only approximately 3 percent of smokers trying to quit will succeed.
In the United States, there are approximately 45 million adult and 5 million youth smokers—and every year, some 60 percent of them are actively trying to quit. That’s 30 million people who are trying to snuff out the butts, and a paltry 1.5 million who make it to nonsmoker status.
In other words, once the smoking habit grabs you, the odds are overwhelmingly bad that you will be able to quit. According to the University of Minnesota, tobacco is as addictive as heroin (as a mood- and behavior-altering agent), 1,000 times more potent than alcohol, 10 to 100 times more potent than barbiturates and five to 10 times more potent than cocaine or morphine.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that smokers can quit. It’s not impossible, just difficult.
Improving the Odds
According to the American Cancer Society, the most important factor in successfully quitting is resolve. If a smoker is highly motivated to quit, and knows about the challenges ahead and is prepared to deal with them, success rates are much higher than normal. Even then it often takes numerous serious attempts at quitting over several years.
But there are ways to help move the odds in the quitter’s favor. When combining raw will power with aids such as nicotine replacement therapies (patch, inhaler, lozenge, gum and nasal spray), pharmaceutical agents (bupropion and varenicline) and good old-fashioned social support (a friend or family member) quit rates rise dramatically—doubling, tripling or more.
Genetics may contribute one day to further improving the odds of quitting. A study published in the Sept. 15 issue of Biological Psychiatry found that genes strongly affect quit rates in those using the antidepressant bupropion. People with a certain gene responsible for metabolizing both the drug and nicotine were more than two times as likely to quit using bupropion compared with placebo. Interestingly, those without the gene were just as likely to quit using either bupropion or placebo. Quit rates were almost equal, at approximately 32 percent, for all but the first placebo group.
Numerous Web sites have popped up aimed at helping smokers quit, such as Smokefree.gov, created by the Tobacco Control Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute.
Jacqueline Stoddard, a behavioral research scientist and a consultant with the TCRB, points out that online tools are only effective when combined with a concrete plan and timeline for quitting.
"You are going to see a broad range of results for [studies on Internet tools], with relatively high quit rates among the smokers who are ready to quit right away and ready to use a vast array of resources to assist them, and very low quit rates among those smokers who haven't yet set a quit date or begun preparations for that day,” she says.
Low and High-Tech Products
As the name implies, the Cigarette Counter is a small device that helps you count how many cigarettes you’ve smoked. It clips to the top of your cigarettes, which requires you purchase a hard pack. You keep track of how many cigarettes you’ve smoked via simple add and subtract buttons, which, the company claims, helps smokers break through the unconscious habit of grabbing a smoke.
From China comes the Ruyan E-Cigarette, an electronic nicotine inhaler designed to mimic the smoking experience, complete with exhaled vapor. Nicotine vaporizing cartridges are snapped into the device, and are available in four different nicotine doses, from 0 mg to 16 mg. Ruyan also sells e-pipes and e-cigars.
Do these products work, or are they gimmicks?
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Thomas Glynn, American Cancer Society director of cancer science and trends, says people are very curious about high-tech devices, but he’s concerned that there is no data yet to back up their use.
“I don’t see anything in [these newer approaches] that I’d say is a magic bullet,” he says. “Unfortunately, one real challenge we have in helping people to stop is getting them to accept that quitting is hard work.”
There’s also a risk, Glynn says, that people will try high-tech methods and, if they don’t work, “might throw their hands up and say, ‘I can’t stop.’ And we’ll lose an opportunity for someone who can quit.”
Glen Morgan, a clinical psychologist and program director at the Tobacco Control Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute, concurs.
“If I’m not familiar with a product or heard of studies supporting its use, I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody any more than, say, chewing peach pits if you have cancer,” he says.
But Morgan adds that the “John Wayne approach” to quitting—using will power alone—doesn’t work. “If you stop and think about anything you’ve ever accomplished, will power just wasn’t enough,” he says. “You need to have a plan and practice and try and be prepared and know that it’s not going to be an easy course and you’re going to slip.”
For any method to help, you will need to get a grasp on what makes you reach for a cigarette, says Glynn.
“Connecting with how your particular habit works requires self-analysis,” he says.
Once you understand your smoking triggers, you can begin to use the available tools wisely.
One of the best measures of addiction is how soon you have a cigarette in the morning. “Is it as soon as your feet hit the floor?” Glynn asks. Thirty minutes is a good rule of thumb for a basic line in the sand. After that, “you might not be as dependent,” he says.
Take the Nicotine Addiction Test on Smokefree.gov.
Bryce Edmonds is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer who has written for Yoga Journal, Alternative Medicine, Vegetarian Times and more.