Illustration by Darren Gygi
I had my first cigarette when I was 16, at my part-time job in a second-hand record store (in those days you could smoke inside a shop). The guys who ran the joint were older, in bands that played the hip local clubs, and they were smokers. Pretty soon I was, too.
Every smoker, myself included, has been confronted with their habit’s insidious facts. In Minnesota alone, it’s estimated that smoking tacks on $3 billion dollars per year in additional health care costs. It’s increasingly socially unacceptable. What’s more, it literally stinks. And it’s estimated that a life as a dedicated smoker will be seven to eight years shorter.
Somehow the smoker is able to put this out of mind—it’s a bundle of associations, from the warmth in the hand to the camaraderie of the smoking porch to the undeniable kick of the nicotine, that’s so tough to leave behind.
The measures people take to rid themselves of smoking addiction are as varied an industry as Big Tobacco itself: therapy, hypnosis, nicotine replacement patches and gum, pharmaceuticals, and plain-old white-knuckle cold turkey. But none of these have emerged as the clear remedy.
“There’s no magic bullet that works for everyone,” says Raymond Boyle, director of research at the tobacco cessation organization Clearway MN. “It’s an unfortunate part of history that we ended up with this really effective drug—nicotine—being delivered in as effective a form as cigarettes.”
The latest alternative is the e-cigarette, a device that vaporizes a liquid containing nicotine and flavorings for the user to inhale without the smoke from burning tobacco—though data suggests that those who do so have lower rates overall of totally quitting. The lack of safety standards for what goes into vaping products is also a red flag, and these substances simply haven’t been around long enough (only about a decade) for there to be a good deal of hard science on their effects (studies suggest that e-cigarettes have the same negative impact on the heart as the regular kind, although of a lesser magnitude).
It’s unclear whether young people who take up vaping are at greater risk of becoming cigarette smokers—of course, the best way to stop smoking is not to take it up in the first place. Long-term smoking literally rewires neural pathways in ways that are lasting.
“Nicotine addiction is very real,” says Kelvin Choi, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health who has done extensive studies on tobacco cessation. “People think that their willpower will be enough to quit, yet oftentimes they fail and retry because they don’t use appropriate techniques to assist themselves.”
The most effective techniques include social support such as counseling programs including phone numbers to call when the craving becomes overpowering. For me, after more than a quarter century, a couple of attempts to quit, and enough smokes to fill a shipping container, what worked was a used copy of The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. The book, written by a one-time 100-smokes-a-day guy, encourages the smoker to keep puffing away while reading it, which at first seems counterintuitive. But this drives home the point that the actual sensations of smoking are quite the opposite of how we tend to advertise them to ourselves—it’s hard to portray the experience of taking a drag as relaxing while holding a finger to one’s pounding pulse.
After four years, I’m quite cautious about labeling myself a nonsmoker. Instead I say that I’m a smoker who currently doesn’t smoke. One central insight enabled me to quit: It wasn’t a matter of giving up something I truly enjoyed, but rather a process of letting go of a burdensome and onerous addiction.