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Kicking nicotine: how and why to quit smoking

Man wearing a black t-shirt and breaking a cigarette in half with his hands

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes nicotine as a chemical compound that is highly addictive. Nicotine can be found in a variety of products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and most e-cigarettes, and is the reason those who use these products can find themselves dependent on them.  

For those looking to kick nicotine out of their lives, Megan Princewill, a tobacco treatment specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says the first step to tobacco cessation is to identify habits and modify those behaviors.

“Nicotine is an addictive chemical, one of the strongest there is; but more often than not, the act of smoking is what people have the hardest time letting go of,” Princewill said. “If someone smokes inside their home or car, we suggest limiting smoking to outdoors only.”

Moving cigarettes, ashtrays and lighters to one spot, somewhere out of sight and out of reach, can prevent mindless, habitual smoking. Princewill says the two changes, while simple, can help identify triggers that have become a muscle memory movement.

“Generally, doing this can reduce the number of cigarettes per day fairly quickly in the first week,” Princewill said.

The next key for tobacco cessation is to find a healthy stress-relieving option to replace smoking. This could include things such as puzzles, reading, journaling, fitness, or prayer and meditation. Whatever it may be, select one that is enjoyable so that, when stressful situations come and the nicotine cravings arise, the activity is fun and can provide a good distraction.

“Stress is a common reason people smoke, yet smoking can actually increase stress levels,” Princewill said.

Click here to read more on the five tips to help manage stress levels.  

Why quit nicotine?

According to the CDC, the No. 1 risk factor for lung cancer is smoking, and it is linked to 80-90 percent of lung cancer deaths. Quitting smoking is the single most beneficial change a person can make to increase overall health and quality of life. Princewill says an individual can experience better breathing, more energy, and an improved sense of taste and smell, within just a few days.

For those who have a cancer diagnosis, quitting smoking not only increases the chances of treatments’ working successfully, but also reduces the chances of that cancer’s returning or a secondary cancer’s emerging.

“Continuing to smoke during treatments like chemo and radiation can increase the severity of side effects while decreasing the efficacy of the treatment,” Princewill said. “Even in cases where an individual feels ‘the damage has already been done,’ choosing to quit can dramatically improve quality of life. It’s never too late to quit!”

Other health benefits can include lower blood pressure and heart rate and healthier skin and hair, as well as provide some financial relief. There are myriad positives when it comes to tobacco cessation.  

Princewill says the most important thing to remember is quitting smoking is not easy, and friends and family can play a huge role in helping a loved one through their journey.  

“Most smokers, up to 70 percent, want to quit; but few can do so without help and multiple attempts,” Princewill said. “Providing a safe, caring and smoke-free atmosphere for a loved one, supporting them, and being patient through the ups and downs can greatly increase the chances of a successful quit.” 

Parents and guardians play an important role in nicotine addiction in youth and teenagers. According to the CDC, 2.8 million students reported using tobacco in 2023, and the most common product used is an e-cigarette. The CDC found that, while some e-cigarette companies claim to contain zero nicotine, their products did contain the chemical.

“It’s imperative for parents and caregivers to stay informed on what products are on the market and how they can be camouflaged to easily conceal,” Princewill said. “While these products market themselves as fun and harmless, the research shows they can indeed be addictive and harmful.”  

Learn more about smoking cessation.

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