It takes the average smoker about 30 tries to quit — a discouraging number — and if you’re one of the people who decided to give up smoking for good as part of your New Year’s resolutions, you may not even know where to start.
It’s never easy to give up something that you’ve done for so long, and going about it is easier said than done. To make matters even worse, there’s also the everpresent daunting question: Should you gradually reduce the number of cigarettes, or just quit cold turkey?
Quitting gradually certainly seems more reasonable. After all, when you do a big change, it’s better to ease into it, right? Especially if you’ve been a smoker for many years, the shock won’t be as big and your body will adapt. Seems logical enough.
Well not really, scientists say.
According to a study conducted at the University of Oxford, quitting abruptly yields significantly better results. The study involved almost 700 participants who smoked 15 cigarettes every day and split them into two groups: one that had to gradually reduce the number of cigarettes they smoked every day for two weeks, and one that had to quit cold turkey at the same appointment day.
Surprisingly, even if most participants preferred the idea of quitting gradually, it was the latter group that had the highest success rate: 49%, compared to 39%. Additionally, people who quit cold turkey were able to stay smoke-free for longer.
Even if withdrawal symptoms are more intense when quitting abruptly, scientists explain that this approach is better in the long run because your body gets over the hump faster and you’ll begin to experience the benefits of being nicotine-free sooner. There’s also the fact that when quitting gradually, it’s harder to stick to a schedule and you may be tempted to cheat and go a couple of cigs over the daily limit.
Quitting smoking is still hard work – here’s how you can prepare
As revealing as this study might be, scientists are still far from developing a simple, universal strategy to quit smoking. And that’s because nicotine is highly addictive and many factors come into play when you’re trying to give up: how many cigarettes you smoke every day, for how long you’ve been smoking, lifestyle, peer pressure, overall health, and so on.
Nicotine is highly addictive and abstinence isn’t effortless. Even if quitting cold turkey was deemed more effective, half of the participants in the study were still unable to become smoke-free. Also, the experiment wasn’t based on just rationing cigarettes and sheer power of will. Both groups received behavioral counseling and nicotine replacement solutions such as patches, gum, and mouth spray to support them, so if you’re currently trying to quit smoking, you should know that determination is just one part of the process.
Nicotine replacement therapy remains one of the most recommended tools that smokers can use to control withdrawal symptoms, so before losing your hope, talk to your healthcare provider about the over-the-counter and prescription NRT that can help you.
In addition to nicotine replacement therapy, counseling – whether it’s professional or simply the support of your loved ones – can significantly boost your success chances. Doctors recommend making a plan before attempting to quit smoking. Talking to your family and friends about your goals can increase your commitment and avoiding the social influences that encourage relapse is also recommended.
Other strategies that were proven to work include practicing mindfulness and exercising. In general, substituting a bad habit for a healthier one can keep your mind off things and act as a great coping mechanism. Some people have even managed to quit by joining texting programs that send motivational messages or connect them with experts who send them tips and tricks.
Scientists point out that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to quitting smoking. Even if cold turkey yielded the best results, some people respond better to gradual smoking – and if that’s your case, you don’t have to change your approach. Drawing the line, any strategy that helps you reduce nicotine intake until it reaches zero can be beneficial. If one strategy worked for one of your smoker friends but didn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean you should give up.
Some people decide to just stop smoking one day. Others are forced by an unexpected medical emergency. Others get into a non-smoker group of friends or join a company that has a strict non-smoking policy. One company in Japan even rewards non-smokers with an extra week of vacation. Whatever your motivation may be, do what works for you.
Ultimately, you can even consider e-cigarettes and use tools like the Yocan vaporizer for a smoother transition. Although e-cigs were not used as a form of nicotine replacement in the study, scientists say that they can be of great help to smokers, as long as they use them as a substitute to normal cigarettes, and not as an addition to them.
Lastly, keep in mind that first-time quitting attempts may not always be effective, simply because you don’t know what works for you. Until you figure out the right combination of personal motivation, nicotine replacement solutions, and counseling, you may go through several unsuccessful attempts and that shouldn’t bring you down. As long as you keep trying and you’re committed to switching to a healthier lifestyle, any effort is welcome.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.