How you really get someone to quit smoking, from an ex-smoker
My mom begged. My stepmom cringed. My dad shook his head in disappointment. Significant others hated it openly. Rewards were offered. Threats were made. Doctors reminded me of the damages and dangers. Strangers coughed when they walked by or stopped to tell me how wrong I was. But it didn’t matter. None of those things made me want to quit.
I smoked off and on (mostly on) for a decade. It was a struggle every time I picked it back up, but I always did. I tried to quit many times and failed almost as many. I went cold turkey. I tapered off. I chewed gum. I’d start exercising or crocheting or whatever the internet suggested for keeping yourself busy. I talked about how much better I felt when I quit. But when those good feelings became normal, I’d start itching. I’d bum a smoke — and then another — off a friend. Then I’d start sneaking cigarettes again.
Now that I’ve finally managed to stay “off” for several years, I understand what my friends and family were trying to do. But their outbursts and attempts didn’t ever address why I did it. After all, I was capable of a rational thought. I knew it was expensive. I cringed whenever I took the time to consider how much my habit was costing. I knew it was unhealthy when I started waking up with a cough and spitting out gray phlegm. I knew it wasn’t making me popular the first time I stepped out on a stranger’s patio as the only smoker at the party.
But like most long-term smokers, I was a teenager when I had my first. It was a menthol Benson & Hedges 100, one of few that my friend had lifted from her grandfather’s pack. The taste was unfamiliar and distinctive — burning and fiery but still icy around the edges. It tasted like rebellion and recklessness, like all the barriers could be lifted, and I could do something different, ignore what people told me to do and have this one thing that was only mine. It filled a need I didn’t know I had.
The magic started to wear off as I got older, but the addiction didn’t. So I pulled it into my personality and made it my daily life. I befriended other smokers, and we made fun of people’s efforts to get us to stop. I went outside with the smokers in the sweltering heat, the pouring rain and the freezing cold. It became a part of who I was, like my hair or my jokes.
People who wanted to take away smoking wanted to take away part of who I was, and I pushed back. The more people hated my smoking, the more entitled I felt to do it. The more people who told me I’d die or become horribly ill, the more convinced I was that I would be just fine. The more people said it was dirty, gross and detestable, the harder I clung to it. Those well-meaning efforts just fueled my indignation and validated the feelings that led me to smoke in the first place.
What would have helped was getting more support. Gentle mentions that I might want to smoke a little less. Letting me go smoke without passive aggressive comments. Being introduced to people who didn’t smoke. Learning new activities that kept my hands busy. None of these things would have made me quit immediately. Instead, they snowballed together until all the small nudges turned into a desire to quit — for good.
It’s incredibly painful when people we love don’t want to make changes we know are good for them. Everyone has friends or relatives stuck in bad marriages or dead-end jobs, but we don’t shame them into taking hold of their own lives. Yet so many people still feel this is a good tactic to motivate quitting.
Everything that made a person smoke is still there when they try to quit. The most important thing is whether they feel supported versus judged. Be a positive force in their life, and they should have an easier time making the change.
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