It's never easy to quit smoking. If it were, there wouldn't be so many smokers who've "quit" five times yet are still lighting up. But there are tips and tricks proven to make quitting easier, reduce cravings, and prevent relapse. Here are ten simple tricks to help you quit -- for good.
There's a reason why the American Lung Association, the National Cancer Institute, and many other health organizations say that essential steps to quitting smoking include joining a support group, setting a "quit date," and announcing it. Studies have also found that joining with coworkers in a workplace pledge to quit, or joining a national effort such as the Great American Smokeout, is an effective way to quit.
Why it works: Public shame and the support of others are powerful motivators. By telling everyone around you that you're quitting, making a public pledge, and enlisting the support of other smokers who make the same commitment, you're boosting your resolve with both forces.
Post a calendar where you can see it, and mark off each day you've gone without a cigarette. Then reward yourself at the end of each week with something you really want: a new pair of shoes, tickets to a ball game, or some new tunes to listen to. At the end of the third week, do something significant to commemorate the occasion, such as having dinner out or spending a day at the spa.
Why it works: It takes 21 days for a new thought pattern to become automatic, which is what's required to eliminate a habit, says behavior modification expert Susan Gayle, founder of the New Behavior Institute in New York City. Three weeks without smoking is usually enough to make it stick. And as any smoker or alcoholic who's tried to quit can tell you, the first few days are the hardest. After that, cravings weaken, and the intervals between cravings lengthen, giving smokers longer periods of feeling good.
A text-to-stop program initiated in Britain this fall was found to have great success; study results published in The Lancet showed smokers who signed up for the text-to-stop trial program, called txt2stop, were twice as likely to quit successfully as those who quit without the reminders. The trend actually started in New Zealand with a campaign called STOMP (stop smoking with mobile phones), which was then modified by the British researchers. The National Cancer Institute just launched its own text-to-quit-smoking program, SmokefreeTXT, with easy online sign-ups.
Why it works: Staying on track is key to "staying quit," says behavior modification expert Susan Gayle, founder of the New Behavior Institute of New York. Although smokers often start out strongly motivated, it's common for resolve to wane as cravings get stronger. Getting regular messages of support and encouragement reinforces that initial motivation, and then builds on it by making the smoker feel proud of his or her accomplishment up to that point.
Two factors that make texting programs successful: The messages can be tailored to reflect the issues and obstacles that are biggest for each individual smoker, and the service is private, so smokers can receive the messages in meetings, in transit, or in social situations without others seeing or hearing them.
A program that combined counseling to quit with an exercise initiative was much more effective in helping teens quit smoking than just counseling alone, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics in September 2011.
Why it works: Research shows that quitting smoking is all about building a sense of control, and exercise has been shown to "build feelings of self-efficacy," the study team concluded. Also, when people begin exercising, they start prioritizing health -- particularly lung health. And exercise releases endorphins, feel-good chemicals in the brain, which can replace the pleasure reinforcers of smoking.
We've all seen smokers popping candies in their mouths. Now it turns out there's a good reason: Mint-flavored sweets, such as wintergreen and peppermint, are an effective quit-smoking tool because they freshen the mouth and relieve cravings for the taste of cigarettes. Stash mints everywhere, so they're always handy: in the car, your purse or pocket, in your desk, and around the house.
Why it works: The cool, tingly feeling of menthol or mint makes a smoker's mouth feel fresh and clean, which tricks the brain into feeling less desire for that hot intake of smoke.
The urge to smoke comes on powerfully in situations where smokers typically indulged, experts say. If you always smoked on your midmorning break, for example, make an alternative plan, such as committing to walking with a partner. If it's going to be hard not to smoke in a particular social situation, such as your weekly poker game, you may actually have to skip that gathering for a month or two until your resistance is cemented, which typically takes three to four weeks at a minimum.
Identify your "danger moments," whether they're at your local bar or during your favorite TV show, and have a plan in place so you can avoid them entirely or get through them without using tobacco. Don't set yourself up for a smoking relapse. If you usually smoked while you talked on the phone, for instance, keep a pen and paper nearby to occupy yourself with doodling rather than smoking.
Why it works: Habits are deeply engrained, so you may have to decouple one habit from another in order to quit smoking. Also, it's impossible for the mind to hold two thoughts at once, psychologists say, so if you replace your smoking trigger with an alternative source of pleasure, such as a chatty walk with a friend, a hobby, or a pleasant taste or activity, it's much easier to resist the temptation.
These are easier to get than you might think. Some nicotine products, including patches, gums, and lozenges, are now available over the counter, though you may have to ask for them. Nicotine nasal spray and the nicotine inhaler are available with a prescription. Patches and gum come in three different strengths, and it's important to choose the right one. Smokers should start with the strongest amount if they smoke more than 25 cigarettes a day, the weakest version if they smoke fewer than 7 cigarettes a day.
Why it works: Nicotine replacement therapy (also called nicotine substitutes) is controversial among addiction experts, since the therapies don't necessarily break the physical addiction to smoking, as is often claimed. But they do work to help smokers believe they can quit, which is half the battle. And when combined with counseling, support groups or pledges, and other tools, nicotine substitutes can be useful in overcoming the psychological side of addiction, which is a big part of the equation for many smokers.
If you want to try nicotine gum, go ahead: It might give you an edge. But experts say it's the act of chewing and the freshening taste that actually do the trick, so any gum should work.
Why it works: The flavor of the gum keeps the mouth fresh, making smoking less attractive. The act of chewing relieves the desire for oral stimulation and keeps the mouth busy.
The stimulation of chewing is one of the best ways to replace the oral fixation of smoking, and choosing fruit adds an additional benefit: The natural chemicals and antioxidants in grapes, blueberries, apples, and other fruits work to relieve cravings, says the New Behavior Institute's addiction expert Susan Gayle.
Why it works: Dark and brightly colored fruits like grapes, blueberries, kiwi, and melon are among the fruits richest in antioxidants, which are depleted when you smoke. They also have a firm texture that provides more jaw stimulation.
One often-overlooked trick to resist and relieve cravings is to slowly drink a big glass or bottle of water. Carry a water bottle with you wherever you go and use this technique in combination with others, such as support messages, to resist the desire to smoke.
Why it works: The average craving lasts just 15 seconds, says Gayle, so if you can distract yourself for that length of time, you're on the right track. "Envision that the water is washing away the urge to smoke and washing away all toxins from smoking at the same time," Gayle says. "By the time you've finished the glass, you've distracted yourself, and the craving's gone."