Smoking brings on a number of health risks, but quitting the habit can prove exceedingly difficult. Therefore, a great deal of research has looked into helping people stop the unhealthy behavior.
Over time, researchers have found a number of techniques linked with better success in quitting smoking. However, quitting still remains an individual process — not all techniques work for everyone, and many people may come up with their own methods that work better for them.
"Different individuals will find different tricks that help them get through the day, get through the urge," said Glen Morgan, program director in the Behavioral Research Program at the Tobacco Control Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute.
Quitting smoking means ignoring both the cravings for nicotine and the pull of a habit that may have been in place for years.
To combat these forces, smokers should not only try the techniques researchers have developed, but also attempt those that smokers themselves have devised, including tips they say have helped them. As long as these suggestions aren't harmful, there's no reason not to try them, Morgan said.
Nicotine replacement therapy can be used as a nicotine patch or nicotine gum, and the form a smoker opts to use is often an individual choice, Morgan said.
Some people may not like the taste of the gum, but find the patch convenient; others don't like the continuous delivery of the patch and instead prefer chewing the gum whenever they have the urge to reach for a cigarette. Some people may even combine the two, using the patch but also chewing gum when they have an intense urge, Morgan said.
Not everyone needs to use nicotine replacement therapy, but many find it helpful Morgan said. However, the therapy alone isn't usually going to help someone quit smoking, because "smoking is something that becomes interwoven with all the activities you do throughout the day," he said. Whether it's watching TV, driving or having a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, a smoker's daily activities often involve cigarettes. [10 Easy Paths to Self Destruction]
"If they smoke in those circumstances, every day, 365 days a year, for 10 years, that's a lot of behavioral conditioning," he said.
"People need to do more than simply put a nicotine patch on their shoulder, or take a medication and expect that that is going to make them want to quit smoking or erase all desires for a cigarette," Morgan said. "It may blunt the cravings, but the medication will not eliminate" them.
Experts recommend setting a quit date, rather than simply trying to stop out of the blue, because it gives you time to set up a plan, talk to supporters about that plan, get nicotine replacement products and prepare other suggestions on this list. That's much more effective than trying to pull it all together on a whim.
"It's like taking a test — you've got to study," Morgan said.
In cognitive therapy, people commonly write down the activities that trigger a habit. Individuals with a variety of habits they want to break, or feelings they hope to lessen often use this technique.
Noting the times when you smoke helps you figure out what activities you associate with smoking, and can help you alter these habits so they don't prompt you to smoke after you have quit.
When you figure out which situations are your strongest triggers, you can start developing strategies for those situations, Morgan said. For example, if you smoke when drinking coffee, you could switch to tea.
However, Morgan cautioned, smokers should not stop consuming caffeine entirely, because they may get headaches and mistake these symptoms for nicotine withdrawal.
Some may choose to enlist a therapist when quitting smoking.
"It can be very helpful if you see someone that has expertise in that arena," Morgan said. "But one-to-one counseling is not everybody's cup of tea."
Those seeking an alternate option can try Web-based treatments, quit-smoking phone lines and other forms of support. Morgan noted that the government website at smokefree.gov is free of charge.
Additionally, it can be helpful to speak with your primary care provider, Morgan said, as you doctor has likely received training in helping people quit smoking.
Because counseling is not a popular choice for many, you may also want to enlist the aid of friends, family or coworkers for suggestions.
"It's golden if you have a friend or significant other who has quit smoking," because they have been there and can provide suggestions about what helped them, Morgan said.
Like preparing for a job interview, he said, you want to get ready, develop strategies and get help from people in your social network to maximize your chance of succeeding.
Cravings are time limited, usually lasting five to 10 minutes, so reducing a craving is often a matter of finding something else to do for that short time, Morgan said.
"If you sit in a chair and wait for the craving to go away, that's going to make it much harder," said Morgan. Instead, he recommended taking a short walk.
In addition to providing a distraction, "exercise may help reduce the craving because exercise helps reduce stress," he said. It's also useful for minor anxiety or depression — both of which can influence people to smoke.
Just like cardiovascular exercise, lifting weights has shown some evidence of helping people quit smoking, although this data comes from smaller studies.
It may help to keep free weights by your office desk, because they could also provide a distraction from a craving.
Increasing use of cellphones has been a significant asset in helping people quit smoking. The United States Preventive Services Task Force, which issues treatment guidelines, has recommended the use of cellphones for smoking cessation, such as using phones to provide counseling or support for people who are trying to quit.
"They have the phones on them at all time, and people read their text messages," said Lorien Abroms a professorof health communication and marketing at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services, speaking of smokers looking to quit. Cellphone programs, particularly those involving text messages and alerts, have become a good avenue for researchers who hope to help people quit smoking, she said. "People are willing to be bugged in that format."
Abroms said a good text-messaging–based program to quit smoking will send two to three texts in the time around a quit date. The texts will include reminders and tools, like responsive surveys or keywords a user can text to get information. For example, someone dealing with cravings can text CRAVE and receive a tip to help them get through that vulnerable period.
One program is available for free at smokefree.gov.
There are numerous smoking apps out there, said Abroms, who published a survey looking at 98 of the programs. However, many of these apps seem to ignore the guidelines for good practices on quitting.
There are no studies published establishing that any specific app helps people quit smoking, but the available apps ignored the good practices known to work, she said.
"People are going to these apps, they're downloading," Abroms said. "The apps, as far as we know based on the clinical practice guidelines, are missing some key features."
For example, many of the programs ignored outside resources such as quit-smoking phone lines. And many made no mention of nicotine replacement therapy. Only 12 involved any alerts or reminders. While Abroms did not look at every single app, her findings were part of the reason she coded an app, Text2Quit, which incorporates features such as a trivia game to help distract former smokers when they feel a craving coming on.
Abroms said people could probably get by with any app, given that distraction is the point, but an app specifically for smoking is probably ideal.
"It would be fine if they would go to 'Angry Birds,' but it's not the first thing they think of [when] they're craving a cigarette," she said.
While successfully quitting smoking involves choosing steps that fit an individual, there are several reasons to avoid e-cigarettes, even if there are some people who have said they were able to use the devices to quit.
No clinical trials have shown the effectiveness of e-cigarettes, so it's unclear if they really help people quit, Morgan said. Also, the FDA doesn't regulate these products, so a user won't know the level of nicotine and other toxins they are taking in. This means they could be adding to a problem they are trying to alleviate.
"Right now, I think that since we have FDA-approved nicotine replacement treatments, that's what we have to be recommending, and not supporting e-cigarettes or any other drug delivery," he said.