The machines don’t lie when it comes to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute Department of Behavior.
“There’s a lot of bad stuff in cigarettes,” said Andrew Hyland, department chairman.
Hyland and other researchers spend time watching all forms of cigarettes burn in specially ventilated labs at Roswell. They have helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keep tabs on the deadly mixture of more than 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, which include hundreds of toxins and about 70 cancer-causing agents. Among them: products used to embalm bodies, clean sinks and toilets, and make pipes, pesticides and paint thinners.
They also include nicotine – a drug so potent it can hook smokers after just a few cigarettes.
“Quitting is not just a matter of willpower,” Hyland said. “Nicotine is an addictive substance, and most people who started smoking didn’t know what they were getting into.”
Melissa A. Day counts herself among them. She described herself as a “militant anti-smoker” before a college roommate who smoked introduced her to the habit when she was 18. She spent the next three decades smoking up to two packs a day. She fired up a Marlboro Light first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and during many a break in between.
“You don’t realize how tied to a cigarette you are,” said Day, 48, an Amherst lawyer.
The good news for Day is that she quit smoking last year, after nine unsuccessful attempts. A stop-smoking app on her cellphone calculates that, based on her past behavior, she has chosen to pass up on more than 14,000 cigarettes and saved more than $7,000. More importantly, she has more time to do other things, and has safeguarded her health.
With the new year right around the corner, and the tug to quit greater than ever for many smokers, Day hopes this will be the ideal time for smokers to break the habit, for good.
“It’s hard to quit, but it’s not too hard,” said Rebecca Etkin, co-leader of the University at Buffalo Quit program.
Here are some strategies.
1. Understand the dangers – and benefits
Smoking kills. And it costs lots of money – up to $70 a week for a pack-a-day smoker. The carbon monoxide level in a smoker’s bloodstream is often three to four times that of a nonsmoker, but can fall back into the normal range within a few weeks of quitting, said Sharon Radomski, the other co-leader of UB Quit. Lung function can climb by one-third during that same period, and the risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker after one smoke-free year.
2. Get help You can try to quit on your own, Hyland said, but the success rate is far better for those who plug into available resources. The New York State Smokers’ Quitline is based at Roswell Park, and UB Quit and a variety of other programs in Western New York also are designed to help smokers quit. The quitline – (866) NY-QUITS 697-8487 – is a clearinghouse where trained specialists can help you create a plan to stop smoking, walk you through the quitting process, and plug you into a support program should you so choose. It’s also important to talk with your primary care doctor about what strategies and options would be best for you.
3. Group support Day quit smoking 494 days ago with help from UB Quit, which started last year in the University at Buffalo Psychological Services Center, on the North Campus. The program has yet to see a single college student. The age range of participants typically runs from the late 40s into the 70s. Group members meet two to three times a week for three weeks, learn the most effective cessation strategies and support each other through the challenges that come in the first few weeks of kicking the habit. “The odds you quit are higher if you follow the program,” Radomski said,
4. Drug therapy Few other drugs are taken as frequently by their users as nicotine, which poses a great challenge and means that quitting generally takes deliberate action, Radomski said. Because a cigarette addiction is part physical, that means weaning off nicotine. Nicotine replacement therapy helps with that effort, including withdrawal symptoms that can include fatigue, irritability and nausea. Prescription Chantix and over-the-counter medications can be more effective than patches, Hyland said, but can come with side effects. They should be used by those who have been unsuccessful trying to quit through other ways.
5. Behavioral changes Along with the physical addiction,“smoking becomes so quickly integrated into somebody’s daily routine,” Hyland said. “You have to make changes in that routine” to stop smoking. Here’s how:
• Get organized: Create a plan to stop smoking before you quit. Include a spreadsheet that allows you to track when you normally light up. “By marking down when smokers have a cigarette, they can see what their triggers are,” Etkin said, “and then we can talk about strategies to address those.”
• Share your plan: Those who stay mum on their no-smoking plan are far less successful than those who share with their family and friends, who can offer encouragement. Day shared her plan on Facebook.
• Make it official: On the evening before you stop smoking, hold a “quit ceremony.” Gather all cigarettes and smoking products in your possession and destroy them. If you quit only for a few days, but are determined to stop again, hold another ceremony, Etkin said.
• Stay calm, and busy: Go for a walk – which someday might turn into a run as your energy improves. Consider progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing, then relaxing, each muscle in the body, starting with those on your head and moving, slowly, down to your toes. Keep a handy supply of healthy oral substitutes including carrots, apples, raisins or gum, the American Cancer Society advises.
6. Never surrender Because nicotine is a tough adversary, don’t get discouraged when you stumble, and give up trying to quit. The average smoker in the UB quit program, for instance, has tried to quit five times. “There’s going to be ups and downs and you have to remember why you wanted to quit in the first place,” Hyland said.
Day credits her willingness to try the UB Quit program – and accept both her physical and psychological addiction – for the reason she stopped smoking on her 10th try.
“Part of what made this time different is that I had all the prior failures as part of a learning experience on how I could be successful this time. The program focuses on not seeing the previous times that you quit as evidence you can’t do it, but to see this as part of the basis of knowledge that says you can do it. Each time you try to quit, you learn something in that process.”