Quit smoking — it’s easier than you think
One of the curses of youth is smoking. You start because it is “cool”, makes you look older and more sophisticated— certainly never because it tastes good, in spite of what advertising tries to hammer into you. Smoking is a social thing, and it is addictive. Which means you easily get hooked.
Smoking is situative. There are circumstances where it is most appropriate to light up: smoking after a meal brought me great pleasure, or so I told myself. In discussion seminars at University it was practically mandatory. Someone would always open a new pack of cigarettes, pull a few out and toss it on the table. The message: help yourselves, today it’s on me. And later as a writer and science journalist it was the white sheet of paper. You threaded it into your typewriter (yes, I am that old!), leaned back and thought “How should I start.” That’s right: pull out a cigarette and light up.
You realize of course that inhaling its fumes is a non-obvious use of tobacco. If you have not heard it before, you are in for a real treat: Bob Newhart’s sketch on the subject is an eternal classic:
At some stage you realize that tobacco is a bum deal. There are many infirmities and calamities that might befall you in life. A dear friend, Terry, an Olympic class swimmer, who lived a life of pure health and exercise, was struck by a stroke at the age of 33. Steve Jobs, who led his company Apple from the verge of bankruptcy to becoming the largest publicly traded corporation in human history (its turnover last year was $233 billion), was a fruitarian, often eating just one or two plants, e.g. carrots and apples, for weeks at a time. He contracted pancreatic cancer at the age of 48, and died of this disease eight years later. You get the feeling there is nothing you can do about these things.
But with tobacco it is different. You can kick the habit. By smoking, you are inhaling a number of poisonous chemicals and carcinogens, which cause heart and lung diseases — and cancer. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco caused 5.4 million deaths globally in 2004, and 100 million over the course of the 20th century. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe tobacco use as “the single most important preventable risk to human health in developed countries and an important cause of premature death worldwide.”
So one thing is clear: the most powerful, the most effective thing you can do, as a smoker, to improve your health and extend your life expectancy, is to give up the habit. It’s like if you decided to stop banging your head against a wall. Some freak accident or disease might still get you, but not banging your head will definitely better your chances of survival, and it will certainly improve your quality of life. One more thing: it will not cost a fortune to implement, it will cost you nothing — wait, what am I talking about, it will actually earn you a pretty piece of cash if you stop smoking.
Well, so what is stopping you? It is addiction, of course, which incidentally comes from the Latin and means something like “enslavement”. HelpGuide tells us that it “exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that manifests in three distinct ways: craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences.” It is essentially a brain hack that involves the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex.
Addictive drugs provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. The hippocampus lays down memories of this rapid sense of satisfaction, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli.
How to kick the habit
The thing about smoking is that it is not as addictive as many other powerful drugs. Although it has a chemical basis, nicotine, it is more like certain pleasurable activities such as gambling, shopping, and sex, which can also co-opt the brain. It’s main hold on you is your fear of abandoning it, fear of the discomfort and misery you will feel when you quit.
Believe me, I know what I am talking about. I smoked quite intensely for over a decade, before I came to my senses and decided to quit. I adopted the following strategy, which I urge you to consider.
- Understand the mechanism of addiction and tell yourself that quitting is not going to involve unbearable suffering. In the case of certain powerful drugs, like heroin or meth, that is not the case (if animals are given meth, they will continue to take the drug repeatedly until it kills them). Nicotine is only mildly addictive.
- Change your habits, especially the ones that are associated with smoking. In my case, I stopped attending the University seminars or similar places where I had smoked copiously. I did this for about three months. Also, I stopped writing for a few weeks — no blank page. Cost me a bit of income, but not more than taking an unpaid vacation.
- Reward yourself with other things. I loved a certain kind of Japanese crackers that were inordinately expensive (for my income at the time). But the money I saved not smoking allowed me to buy them at no extra expense. So, after dinner it was Japanese crackers and other treats I normally considered too expensive.
- Occupy your hands. Smoking is a tactile thing, your hands are involved in the process. The first time I quit smoking, I took up knitting. Not just straight run-of-the-mill stuff, but complex cable knitting patterns. I made beautiful pullovers and vests for my sons, and now see my young grandchildren wearing them — and I am still around to enjoy it.
- Do not ever think you are over it, and that it is safe to light up occasionally. After a few years of abstinence I decided that it was okay, for instance after a meal or in a club lounge. It was like jumping off a cliff — the splat came immediately, there was nothing I could do about it. Incidentally: the second time I quit I taught myself, at the age of forty, to play the piano — classical pieces, Beethoven and Chopin. It is excruciatingly difficult for people born with a single brain, trying to coordinate two hands. But deeply satisfying when you succeed — and your hands do not have time to handle cigarettes while you are playing.
- Viciously punish people who try to tempt you. The best punishment I came up with — when they maliciously offer you a cigarette, knowing that you have quit — is to take the cigarette and calmly crush it over an ashtray. Never again will they try to tempt you. I guarantee it.
Well, if you heed my advice and succeed in quitting, send me a check for $100. Just kidding! Tell others how to do it, give them The Talk and offer them a reward instead. Like I did in my company. Two ladies were smokers and I told them that they would get a valuable present from me if they quit — if they could say to me “for one full year now I have not smoked a single cigarette.” One of them succeeded, and I gave her a very nice Casio Exilim camera. She was delighted but said: “This is too much, why are you doing it?” My answer: “$200 dollars for one human life — it’s the best bargain I ever got!”