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Readers' stories of how they quit smoking

SEP 2010

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In an Ask the Doctor item about quitting smoking in the May 2010 Harvard Heart Letter, we invited readers to share their stories of how they quit smoking. We received a number of interesting and witty ways to help stop this serious addiction.

Joan B.

I gave up smoking in 1968 after years of smoking two packs a day. I have never smoked since. The unique aspect of the method I used was that I could smoke as much as I wanted to, provided I followed simple rules. Here's how it worked:

List the following hours on an index card:

AM:1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
PM:1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Day 1: Cross out all the hours you're usually asleep. These are the hours each day that you will not be permitted to smoke (this made me feel really good because it was effortless). You may smoke as much as you like during any hour not crossed out.

Day 2: Select one hour that you will not smoke. Cross it out (choose an hour where you usually do not smoke very much). Remember, you may smoke as much as you like during any hour not crossed out.

Day 3 and beyond (about 3 weeks): Repeat Day 2 until all hours are crossed out.

Congratulations! You have given up smoking!

I followed these instructions until there were three hours left where I could smoke. By then I was so disgusted anticipating the remaining hours where I would chain smoke almost two cigarettes at a time that I gave it up altogether.

At the time I gave up smoking, I was a public high school commercial art teacher. So impressed was I with my results that I had students design a brochure, "How to Give up Smoking." Then the print shop class published enough to distribute to the entire student body and faculty.

The method for daily control was inspired by my reading of "Learning to Live Without Cigarettes," by William A. Fackler in the Journal of the Albert Einstein Medical Center, Volume 16, Number 2, Autumn, 1968.

Joann B.

When I read your article on smoking and its effects in the Harvard Heart Letter, I thought of how my mother stopped cold. She would be considered a light smoker. But at age 70, she experienced a cough that scared her. She decided to stop smoking and she did it! The background: she'd had several friends who had smoked, then died of cancer of the throat, etc.

Edna C.

My husband had smoked for 40 years and I had smoked for about 25. We made plans to quit smoking on my birthday. We looked forward to that day by talking about how nice it would be — everything would smell better and we'd have extra money to spend. We tried smoking a little less. We'd light up, take a few puffs and put out the cigarette. We did not empty or wash the ashtrays. After several weeks of this, smoking was not enjoyable and the house smelled pretty bad.

The night before my birthday we put the cigarettes we had left in the sink and ran water on them, and threw the mess in the garbage. We emptied and cleaned the ashtrays, and put them away. We never smoked again. And we never regretted quitting.

P.S. My husband sometimes had a toothpick in his mouth and carried hard candy in his shirt pocket so it was handy.

Donald G.

I smoked about a pack a day for more than 30 years, starting as a teenager. Over that time, I tried various brands and never settled on a specific one. Around age 48, I again decided to try to quit and finally succeeded. I have not smoked a cigarette (or anything else) for the last 28 years.

For me, the problem was really two problems, and I needed to deal with them one at a time, separately. First there was the nicotine addiction, and second there was the oral need to have something in my mouth. It was just too much for me to attempt both together, so I tackled the addiction first.

Coincidentally, I had recently read that the FTC would send me a list of all the current brands ranked by how much nicotine and coal tars each cigarette contained. Nowadays such a list is easy to get, but at the time it was a revelation and just what I needed. I found my brand's dosage (would you believe an oxymoron name like "Life?") and then picked whatever brand it was that had about half the nicotine. Then — and this for me was the crucial point — I told myself that I could smoke as many of the new cigarettes as I wanted each day for as long as I wanted. In other words, I gave myself zero pressure and zero deadlines. The "trick" is that there are only so many cigarettes a person can smoke each day. Yes, it was a little expensive initially, but so what! The end result was that in about two months, I was smoking just about the same pack a day as before, but at half the previous daily nicotine dosage. Somehow, the ability to light up whenever I wanted wound up neutralizing the loss of nicotine. I leave the psychology of it to others. All I know is that it worked for me.

I went back to the list and on to the next brand at half the nicotine again, and so on. It took about 8 to 10 months to reduce my daily nicotine dose down to whatever level it was such that I just decided to go cold turkey because I viewed the last brand (I think it was called Carleton) as really just pieces of wood, so why not stop and be done with it!

So now to the second, oral problem. Oddly enough, for me it was more of a hassle than the nicotine addiction. The first thing I tried were my collection of pipes (all unfilled of course) left over from previous failed attempts. Again, no pressure, I chewed on it whenever I wanted. This took longer than 2 months, somewhere around 6 months, if I remember correctly. Finally, it just became a big nuisance, and I made a switch to toothpicks (decided on well in advance). This was another roadblock. About all I can say is that about after a year, I looked in the mirror one day and thought, "What on earth is a grown man doing always walking around with a toothpick in his mouth?" And that was the end of that. I will say however that having successfully kicked the nicotine addiction first was enormously helpful. It kind of put me on a psychological roll in that I kept telling myself that having come so far, there was just no way I wasn't going to go all the way and finish it.

Margaret T.

I am 88 and started smoking during WWII: it seemed so glamorous!

I met my lifetime husband at the end of WWII. He told me later that one reason he liked me from the start was because I, too, smoked and so did not nag him to quit.

Many years later I decided I really should quit. Among other things, cigarettes were getting so expensive. I tried and failed, tried and failed. Then I reasoned that for some reason, perhaps good sense, I had never, ever smoked in bed. So I did not waste time after preparing a meal and eating. Instead I left the table and hurried into bed and watched the boob tube or snoozed. For reasons I cannot fathom, the desire for a cigarette faded in a relatively short time.

After only a week or two my desire for a cigarette grew less and less and I even reached the point that I could stand it when my husband lit up. But the smell of nicotine began to get through to me and I realized that all these years of smoking must have been offensive to my nonsmoking friends.

After only about 2 or 3 weeks of this "in-the-bed" trick, enough of the nicotine was out of my system and, by George, I had licked habit. Proof was my dislike of the stench of cigarette smoke, which I couldn't smell before. Fortunately, my husband made it a bit easier for me by smoking outdoors and not around me.

After several weeks of this routine, we went to a function at the country club and I couldn't stand it. I lit a cigarette. I almost choked! That did it. I put the cigarette out and to this day (some 40 years later) I have never smoked a cigarette again. But it sure is easy to detect others who do. The smell clings to clothing and breath and hair and the smoker probably doesn't even realize it.

LeRoy W.

I am a 96-year-old retired cardiologist. The recommendations I offer have helped many of my patients become former smokers.

My first advice is to stop all caffeinated beverages — coffee, tea, Pepsi, Coke, etc. People frequently enjoy a cigarette following a cup of coffee or a Coke. Caffeine increases the heart rate and stimulates the nervous system thereby increasing the problem of tobacco avoidance. I recommend Postum, Sprite, or other noncaffeinated beverages for a week prior to attempted tobacco reduction. This improves willpower, which is a necessary attribute for anyone struggling to quit smoking. Postum is better than decaf coffee because it has an entirely different flavor. This may be discontinued later.

No one starting to jog runs five miles the first day. Perhaps one block for the first week, then two blocks and so on. This principle is applied to stopping tobacco. The thought that you can never have another cigarette strikes terror to a smoker's heart. A gradual approach works much better if you are not able to stop cold turkey.

Determine what time you first light up in the morning. The first week, wait an hour before having the first smoke of the day. The second week, wait two hours. Continue this until you aren't having your first cigarette until noon. Then add three more hours a week.

This system works. I now live in a retirement community and no one smokes.

Susan B.

When I finally quit on March 1, 1994, I had smoked for 40 years. It was extremely difficult, and I haven't even had a drag on a cigarette since that time for fear that I would start again! I used two techniques: 1) regularly reducing the amount that I smoked by 50%; 2) establishing and gradually increasing No Smoking times & places. I also had to quit drinking coffee for a while. When I began, I had "cut back" to a pack a day. After 3 weeks, I reduced that to 1/2 a pack. I had a special box in which I put the day's allowance of cigarettes. After 3 weeks on 1/2 pack, I cut down to 5 cigarettes a day; in 3 more weeks I got down to 2 cigarettes a day.

My No Smoking zones began with no smoking while on the phone, no smoking while in the car, then no smoking in the bathroom, then no smoking in the bedroom, etc. When I was down to 2 cigarettes a day, I realized that I spent a lot of time just deciding when to smoke those two--what an addiction! At that point, I stopped entirely, and got rid of all the cigarettes in the house. After about a month, I felt OK.

The advantages for me from the way I was finally successful in quitting were that I had very few headaches, stomach aches, and not too much nervousness. I also had only a moderate weight gain. And, I was able to quit!

Joan L.

I was a heavy smoker when I quit in 1965 (at least one pack a day). I made a plan to quit, which succeeded (now 2010 not one cigarette in the intervening years). This was the third time I tried. My plan: six months before my quitting day I began telling everyone I knew or not that I was stopping smoking on July 1, 1965. June 30, 1965, 11:30 my last one! This was to be a birthday gift to my mother (an asthmatic) which I told her about in advance. A good friend made a bet of a dollar (!) that I couldn't do it for a month. My pride was heavily involved and I was determined to succeed. I needed a substitute finger crutch (a cigarette in hand was a deeply ingrained habit). I spent a small fortune the first two months on cinnamon sticks (not candy). I could chew on these, draw deep inhalations as if smoking, wave them around gesturing as with a cigarette, and have to explain many times over why I was enriching the cinnamon merchants. Each day was tough, but my husband, four children, and friends cheered me on. When I reached one month, my friend paid off the bet. I carried that dollar as a medal for some time. A certain amount of stubbornness is no doubt why I succeeded, but making a plan, and knowing your own personal weaknesses is a great help. No meds, no doctor bills, no psychotherapy, just cinnamon, pride, and stubbornness!

Peter H.

It was in about 1972 that I finally did it. I had smoked unfiltered Camels, two packs a day, for about 25 years. I had tried on several occasions to quit, but gave up each time in less than 24 hours. But one day at work, I felt run down and tired so I went home, getting there in early afternoon, and went to bed and slept. The family woke me at dinner time, I had dinner and went back to bed. The next day I woke up long enough to eat a meal or two, but spent the rest of the day in bed, mostly sleeping.

The next day I woke up, feeling a lot better. And I realized two separate things. First, that I hadn't had a cigarette in two days (unprecedented!); and second, that I didn't much care to have another. I wasn't sure how long this would last, but it turned out to be permanent.

After giving it much thought, I finally concluded that I had had a minor illness at about the time that my addiction was at its lowest ebb. When I came out of the illness, I no longer felt deprived by not having smoked. My theory then, and now, is that addiction (probably to anything) goes through peaks and valleys. Looking back, it now seems to me that there were many times that I lit up a cigarette just from habit, not because of a compulsion to smoke. This would have been a good time to try quitting.

I never have found anyone who duplicated this experience. But it does seem worth exploring the notion that if you have an addiction, to smoking or anything else, you don't fight it until its strength is at its low point. Identifying that point may not be easy, but it's worth looking for.

Shoshana S.

I quit smoking in 1964, when the first reports came out about lung cancer. I tried cold turkey (lasted about 5 months) and then slowly started smoking again. In about 3 months, I was back up to a pack a day, which was better than the 2-pack a day habit from before I quit. I decided that, if I could go up slowly, I could go down slowly and made a deliberate effort to cut back. I did this by doing something else first when I wanted to smoke and have one 20 minutes to half an hour later. I also kept my hands very busy, sewing, knitting, anything. I cut out the important ones, such as after lunch or dinner. Go do the dishes first. When I was down to 10 cigarettes a day, I started smoking later and later in the day and stretching the times between cigarettes longer and longer.

I never set a limit, such as "today I will only smoke 10 cigarettes," because what happens if you have smoked #10 by 4 PM and there is still the rest of the afternoon and evening to go. When you then smoke #11, you will feel like a failure and you will give up. Cutting back is better psychologically, since you do not feel like a failure because you are still smoking. The important thing is that you are smoking less and less. By cutting back gradually, it reduced the nicotine in my body so slowly that I did not take up eating instead, which I did do when I tried to quite cold turkey. By the time I was down to 1-2 cigarettes a day, I knew I could quit. This process took about 3 months.

It is very important to try to be in a non-smoking environment. Do not smoke in the house and, definitely, do not smoke in your car, a double whammy with regular smoke and second-hand smoke.

James H.

At the age of 49 (27 years ago) I had tried several times to quit smoking. Each time I had promised myself that I would never again smoke — but I did because never is a very long time and it preys on your mind. I then decided that I had the willpower to quit for a day. I began promising myself each morning that I would not smoke that day; making no long-term commitment. Eventually my desire to smoke diminished. However, it was over a year later that I committed to never smoke again. A promise I was able to keep. Quitting a day at a time is easier than quitting forever.


About 30 years ago, I smoked. I started taking 6 grams of Niacin for cholesterol. I started perceiving that the cigarette sticking in my mouth was a foreign object. It was disgusting. I could not do it and stopped. I do not know why and I do not know if an 84-year-old should take this much Niacin.