Helping a loved one quit smoking

Published: November, 2009

It's not news that tobacco, in any form, is bad for your health. Still, 45 million Americans, or about one in five adults, are smokers—so there is a good chance that someone you know and care about is a smoker. On November 13, 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first rise in the number of adult smokers since 2004, from 19.8% in 2007 to 20.6% in 2008, making the effort to quit even more important today. Each year, more than a third of smokers try to kick the habit. But stress, socializing, and the addictive property of nicotine often get in the way.

Whether a spouse, friend, parent, or coworker, remind that person that he or she can quit. The key is to keep at it. Only about 6% who try to quit succeed for more than a month—the average person makes five to seven quit attempts before stopping for good. How can you help? Review the information below and share it with the smoker in your life.

Preparing to quit

  • Like any big endeavor, it takes some planning to successfully quit smoking. You might suggest the following steps to the person attempting to quit: Tell friends and family about the plan and set a quit date to increase accountability for reaching the goal.
  • Recommend getting other smokers in the household or circle of friends to join in quitting. A 2008 study found that smoking behavior spreads through both close and distant social ties; one person's resolve and success can help the people around them quit too.
  • Suggest he or she make the house a no-smoking zone. According to a 2007 study, people who were not allowed to smoke in the house were more likely to quit.
  • Emphasize that withdrawal symptoms such as grumpiness, restlessness, irritability, hunger, headache, anxiety, and drowsiness or insomnia are normal and should be expected. You can help the person stock up on low-calorie snacks and sugarless gum or candy to keep the mouth busy to help get through the rough patches.
  • Identify some activities that make this person feel good, healthy, and energetic. Offer to join in some of these during those early smoking-free weeks when distraction and rewards can help keep a quitter on track.

Overcoming the addiction

Remind your soon-to-be ex-smoker that nicotine withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant, but that they don't last forever. They will be most intense at first, and then taper off. For every day a person refrains from smoking, the withdrawal symptoms will be less intense the next day. Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can help minimize the cravings. Anyone using nicotine replacement therapy should remember the following:

  • Do not smoke when using NRT. Using both on a regular basis can lead to too much nicotine in the body. Too much nicotine can be dangerous for the cardiovascular system.
  • Statistically, using the nicotine patch or gum doubles the chances of quitting successfully. Less is known about newer methods (nasal sprays, inhalers, lozenges), but they appear to be about as effective as the patch and gum.

Behavior therapy

Because NRTs mainly handle the physical withdrawal symptoms, a plan is also needed to deal with the habitual and emotional dependency on smoking. Chances of quitting are doubled if a smoker combines NRT with behavior therapy like support groups and smoking cessation programs.

Behavioral therapy includes group counseling, one-on-one contact with people who have quit, quitting hotlines, and even hypnosis. The more frequent the social support, the better the chances of being smoke-free over the long term. Peer counseling can be effective even when done over the phone. Many hospitals, community centers, and health care plans offer smoking cessation programs. If not, chances are they can help identify a program in your area.

Non-nicotine medications

Some medications used for quitting smoking do not release nicotine into the bloodstream. Instead, they act on the brain to decrease the cravings, withdrawal symptoms, or both. Like any medication, these come with potential for side effects, so it is wise to discuss the risks and benefits carefully with a doctor before adding them to the arsenal.

Taking the plunge

The Great American Smokeout is intended to help people take the plunge and quit smoking. Even if the third Thursday in November isn't the right day for the person you care about to actually quit smoking, it is a good day to encourage him or her to at least decide to start taking steps to do so.

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