Like my neighborhood friends and I had done with alcohol, we secretly tried cigarettes, too. And, just like with alcohol, I wondered why the adults used them. I didn't like the taste and didn't get the point.
Then, during the summer of 1972, when I was twenty-one, I was living with guy who smoked cigarettes, and I had a relationship with an older woman who smoked, too, and I decided to give it a try. It took a while to learn to inhale, but after I managed to get the smoke into my lungs, I progressed to being a two pack a day smoker quickly, and stayed that way for thirty-one years.
People call cigarette smoking a habit. That’s because cigarette smokers don’t want to put themselves on the same plane as alcohol, heroin, or cocaine addicts. Playing with words doesn’t change the facts, though. Nicotine is an extremely powerful drug and smokers are addicted to that drug. I smoked cigarettes because I was a drug addict and my drug of choice was nicotine. That’s true for all cigarette smokers who inhale.
After I was released from the day program at the treatment center for my alcohol addiction, I returned to my work routine. About every ten days, I stopped at the Discount Depot on my way home from school so I could buy a carton of the cheapest cigarettes I could find. Back then, a carton of generics could be had for twelve bucks. A carton lasted five days unless I had some anxiety-provoking deal going on. That was six cartons a month, or about seventy-two dollars a month. I wasn’t buying alcohol now, so I had cut my spending on addiction in half, but that didn’t alleviate my guilt. Every cigarette purchase was agonizing. The money was bad enough, but I knew cigarettes were killing me. I had begun recovering from my alcohol addiction. I knew at some point I needed to kick the nicotine addiction, too.
As time passed, it became harder and harder to buy those cartons of cigarettes. I don’t remember a flash of light telling me it was time to quit. With the alcohol, I clearly remember the moment when I’d decided I’d had enough. I was about to take a swallow, but put the bottle down instead. Cigarettes weren’t like that.
Questions and Answers
►What qualifies you to answer my question?
Excellent question. While I have a masters degree in psychology and a doctorate in counseling, my primary qualification is I've been a recovering nicotine addict since October, 2002. I'm sharing the knowledge I've gained from my experience in recovering hoping it might provide motivation for you to get better, too. You can read my story here.
► You didn’t use nicotine replacement therapy, like nicotine gum or patches, when you quit smoking cigarettes. Are you opposed to them?
No. Evidence indicates they help people quit smoking. I was fortunate in that I’d quit drinking alcohol only three months before my last cigarette. From that experience, I knew I would survive the withdrawal symptoms and the longer I put off withdrawing from nicotine, the harder it would be. For those who aren’t lucky enough to be a recovering alcoholic like me, it’s even harder, so nicotine replacement might be helpful, or even necessary.
► Why is it so hard to quit smoking cigarettes and so easy to start smoking again?
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating. If you smoke cigarettes, you are a drug addict. It’s hard for drug addicts to quit because the drug, in this case, nicotine, changes your body’s chemistry such that you must have the substance to feel normal. It takes a long time after the last cigarette for the body to quit craving it, and all it takes is one tiny puff to reignite the obsession to satisfy the addiction. Meanwhile, your addiction is screaming in your head to give up. That's why you need to use the tools listed later so you'll have another way to react to life other than using nicotine.
► You have said you couldn’t quit drinking alcohol long term without help. Is that true for quitting cigarettes?
I don’t know. They are both addictions, so it’s logical to presume the principles of recovery would be the same for both. I can’t speak to that from experience, because when I quit smoking, I already had a recovery system in place.
Whether you need formal help or not, you can create your own support group, and that’s critical, I think. You must have accountability, or odds of success are tiny. Again, honesty is the key. Tell everyone you know you’re quitting smoking, and challenge them to challenge you when they detect you’ve relapsed. And, you should not doubt for a second they will know. You’ll stink of cigarettes and you can’t change that. Again, it’s not just your breath. You can try to cover that up, but you can’t cover up the stench that permeates your body and clothes.
► Is it better to switch from cigarettes to cigars, pipes, or smokeless tobacco?
No. All of those things are deadly, too. Oral cancer from smokeless tobacco is hideous. And, if you’re a nicotine addict, none of those things will satisfy you for long. You’ll soon be back to cigarettes.
That’s a guarantee.
► What about e-cigarettes?
The verdict’s still out on e-cigarettes’ safety, but that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t want any drug holding me captive, and e-cigarettes are just another drug delivery system no different in function from the hypodermics heroin addicts use.
They’re different from nicotine gum and patches because they imitate the process of smoking cigarettes, and keeps the addiction fresh and active. That’s bad.
The answer is to quit using, period.
► If you could only tell me one thing about cigarettes, what would it be?
I’d tell you something I wish I’d known forty years ago. The Surgeon General of the United States announced that cigarettes caused lung cancer in 1964, seven years before my first cigarette. I can’t claim ignorance of that fact. But, until just a few years ago, I presumed if I quit before I got cancer, I’d be home free. And, I always planned to quit before that happened. I have no idea what made me think I’d know when I was about to become cancerous, but there you go—that’s the kind of idiot thinking I practiced in order to appease my addiction.
It wasn’t until I had my last cigarette that I learned my assumption was incorrect. Big time wrong.
First, lung cancer’s only one concern. Cigarettes are a primary cause for pancreatic, bladder, stomach, throat, and oral cancer. Like lung cancer, the first three are still pretty much death sentences within months of diagnosis. Smoking also causes emphysema, heart disease, leukemia, and a bunch of other maladies.
But, here’s the bigger deal. I mean a real big deal. The damage done at the genetic and molecular level by smoking doesn’t go away when you quit smoking. By then, the damage is already done and those little damaged cells are sitting there just waiting to mutate.
Now, hold on! Don’t go off saying, “Well ,then, why quit smoking if it’s too late?” While the damage is done, the longer you stay alive after quitting, the lower your odds of cancers developing While your odds of getting lung cancer is still ten times the never smoker ten years after quitting, it’s half of those who have continued to smoke. Believe me, when you’re my age, you love cutting the odds in half.
And, the evidence suggests if you quit smoking before turning forty, you can lower your risk to a never smoker eventually. Unless, of course, you’re one of those who are particularly vulnerable. Caroline Knapp, for example, wrote a book about her victory over alcohol called Drinking, A Love Story. She wasn’t so successful with cigarettes and died of lung cancer at 42.
If I had known my risk would continue years after quitting smoking, there’s a real good chance I would have gotten motivated earlier. I’ve seen that scenario played out by young smokers I’ve worked with. Several have quit after seeing the evidence that ex-smokers make up the fastest growing group of lung cancer victims.
Now, look. Most people who smoke don’t get lung cancer. The figures range from 15% to 25%, so, yes, the odds are 75% to 85% that you won’t die of lung cancer. This would be great news except that smoking causes all those other fatal diseases I mentioned above. And, if you’re one of the 25% who gets it, that really sucks bad.
Consider this from the CDC: “More deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by all deaths from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined.”
And many of those deaths happen years after you quit. The sooner you do that, the quicker your odds of cigarettes killing you diminish.
► What if they don’t kill you? Any other reason to quit?
Oh, yeah, cigarettes do plenty of other things to us that make it worth quitting. For example, they control our lives. Sitting through a movie was hard for me. I’d often sneak out to satisfy my nicotine addiction. Traveling really sucked. If I was flying somewhere, I had to sit in a little room with the rest of the addicts desperately sucking cigarette after cigarette until the last minute before boarding, all the time dreading the hours of agony facing me until I could smoke again. I did use nicotine gum, but that did little to nothing to satisfy my craving.
I had to plan around cigarettes for everything I did because my body required the drug. Trust me on this – life is a whole lot easier now that I’m not constantly struggling to get my fix.
And, there’s something else that’s a real biggie, but not necessarily for you. This is about everybody around you. If you smoke cigarettes, you stink. I mean, you don’t know it, but it’s bad. I’ve apologized to everyone I could for all those years I made them miserable by stinking up the environment we shared. Now listen to this—I’m not talking about the smell from the smoke while you’re puffing away. That’s bad, but isn’t nearly as bad as the stench that permeates your clothes, car, house, and your very skin.
Trust me on this, you do stink and being around you is not pleasant.