Smoking is also the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for nearly 1 in 5 deaths.
Cigarettes contain chemicals that can make this addiction particularly insidious. When they enter the lungs, they can cause harmful effects like bronchitis, said Jonathan Bricker, a professor in the division of public health sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Luckily, lung cancer can be prevented if you quit smoking and learn to “take it easy,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, director of the Tobacco Treatment Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.
Here are six steps you can take to help you or a loved one quit smoking and enjoy a healthier life:
1. Focus on how to “stay stopped”
The goal shouldn’t be to quit smoking; rather, it should be about how to “stay stopped,” Galiatsatos said. He said he’s had patients who said they quit several times, but weren’t able to quit for good.
He recommends people break down their larger goal of quitting smoking into smaller goals.
For example, learn about the different triggers that might make you want to smoke. This way, you can be attentive and find solutions to these actions.
2. Make every stop a learning experience
Most people who smoke quit eight to 12 times, due to cigarette addiction, before successfully quitting for good, Bricker said.
Because relapses are so common, Bricker tells his patients to find a lesson they can learn from each experience.
“People will say things like, ‘I learned how powerful these cravings are, or I learned seeing my friend smoking was a big trigger for me, or I learned the stress in my life was a big trigger,” Bricker said.
Patients should approach quitting from the perspective that the more they learn from their relapses, the more likely they are to quit for good, he said.
3. Use phone lines and apps for help
Support groups for people who want to quit smoking are dwindling, so Bricker recommended calling a quit smoking helpline for outside help.
Callers are connected with coaches who help smokers create a quit plan and provide advice on dealing with withdrawal and cravings.
Currently, the state’s quit helplines only reach about 1% of smokers, which the CDC attributes in large part to a lack of funding to promote the service.
The app focuses on acceptance and commitment therapy, which encourages people to accept their emotions and thoughts instead of pushing them away. The tool also offers resources for quitting smoking and managing cravings when they arise, Bricker said.
4. Talk to your doctor
People who want to quit smoking can talk to their doctor to come up with a treatment plan filled with several strategies, Galiatsatos said.
Doctors can prescribe drugs to reduce cravings and make them more manageable, he said. It’s a short-term fix to help train your brain not to crave cigarettes so much, Bricker added.
Medications provided by doctors will depend on your specific situation, Bricker said. Prescriptions tend to be minimal at first and then increase depending on the severity of the addiction.
5. Support people addicted to tobacco
Galiatsatos said he’s never met a patient who doesn’t already know smoking is bad, so he recommends avoiding that argument when dealing with a loved one who smokes.
“If you really want to help your loved one quit smoking, you have to approach them as a pro-smoker and anti-tobacco user,” he said.
When trying to help someone who smokes, make it clear that you’re approaching the situation without stigma or judgment, Galiatsatos said.
Once trust is established, he recommends that friends and family members help smokers find resources on how to quit.
Medical providers should also support their patients who smoke, Galiatsatos said.
If patients feel judged by their doctors for smoking, they might just lie about it. And that doesn’t help anyone, he says.
Even when patients don’t feel motivated to quit that day, it’s important to outline the different treatment options so they have the resources later.
6. Address the root cause of the problem
Often when people smoke, it’s to deal with an underlying issue in their life, such as stress or anxiety, Galiatsatos said. When they face these emotions while quitting smoking, it is instinctive for them to turn to cigarettes.
“If you’ve always relied on cigarettes as a coping mechanism and you don’t have a replacement, that’s all we’ll see,” he said.
To combat this challenge, Galiatsatos recommended that people who are trying to quit smoking follow behavioral counseling. They will be able to better identify why they smoked and work to find healthier ways to process those emotions.
Why is smoking so addictive anyway?
Cigarettes are filled with chemicals such as nicotine, which are chemically enhanced to cause this addiction, Galiatsatos said.
Chemically enhanced nicotine closely resembles acetylcholine, a common neurotransmitter, which helps control muscle movement and other brain functions.
“I always tell people it’s the most insidious addictive molecule known to man because it doesn’t just overdose you,” said Galiatsatos, who is also a volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association. .
It rewires the smoker’s brain over years and years, and “the moment someone realizes that it’s robbing them of their health, it’s incredibly hard to break that addiction.”
Despite the considerable effort it takes, never forget that it is possible to overcome this addiction and enjoy better health.