Quitting cigs is hard. Let’s not pretend otherwise

On Radio Scotland earlier there was a discussion about stopping smoking. Every single person I heard said how easy it was. Pick a date, get a wee bit hypnotised. No cravings. No irritation. No nothing.

Amateurs!

Proper smokers don’t quit like that. When proper smokers quit – and by proper smokers I mean two lighters a day smokers, smokers who were chucked out of nursery for huffing B&Hes behind the tricycle sheds, smokers who wonder where the smoking area is when they’re scuba diving – when those smokers quit, there’s carnage.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy that the radio people are ex-smokers. Binning the cigs is indisputably A Good Thing.

I just don’t like the way when stopping is discussed, it’s usually in the form of “I listened to one CD, felt a bit sleepy and woke up an ex-smoker. Now I run marathons, tear up telephone directories with my bare hands and cough ostentatiously whenever I smell tobacco.”

I don’t know a single ex-smoker whose experience was like that.

In my experience, if you go into stop-smoking-land expecting it to be all rainbows and summer days and bounding about in flowery fields like a fucking diddy, you’ll be back on the smokes by the afternoon.

I think maybe the the happy-clappy crowd are very lucky, or maybe they just have short memories. Not feeling cravings now doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have sucked the nicotine off a tramp’s fingers then.

For many people, the first few days are hellish, the following weeks are no picnic and it takes a year or more before you start to feel like you’ll never go back.

I stopped smoking in September 2009 thanks to a combination of willpower, worrying that I was going to die, and Champix. It wasn’t particularly easy. A few months later, I stopped taking Champix. That wasn’t particularly easy either.

It was, I think, my 3,000th attempt at stopping smoking.

What made that attempt different, I suspect, was that I knew exactly how hard it was going to be. I was prepared for it. Previously I’d had a bit of the “this will be a miracle cure!” approach to binning the cigs, to the point where I’d try any old shite that promised to get me off the fags. In no particular order, I’ve tried:

* Laser acupuncture at £80 a pop. I was younger then, and much more gullible. I went to several sessions because, hey! Lasers!

* Hypnotherapy. £90 to sit in a room with an idiot wondering why I wasn’t feeling sleepy, feeling sleepy, feeling sleepy.

* Cold turkey.

* Hypnotherapy again. £100 to sit in a room with an idiot in the hope that it was a therapist problem, not a “Gary can’t be hypnotised” problem. She gave me a cassette tape to listen to. It was the wrong cassette. It was about cake, and I’ve barely eaten cake since. I continued to smoke for a good fifteen years, however.

* Nicotine gum, nicotine patches, nicotine lozenges, nicotine inhalers.

* Hypnotherapy again, because somebody I knew had a friend who’d been to this woman and said she was awesome. £140 to sit in a room with an idiot with hilarious EMPHASIS on every SECOND or THIRD word. She made me throw my Zippo in the bin too. I loved that Zippo.

* Heroin.

Okay, I’m lying about the heroin. But what all of those things had in common – other than their mainly being bullshit ideas that cost a fortune – is that they weren’t the magic bullets I wanted, because magic bullets don’t exist.

My first stop-smoking attempt was when I was sixteen, and I continued to try and stop smoking on and off for 22 years. If stopping smoking were easy, I’d have been a non-smoker at seventeen.

I spent some time at the Western Infirmary last year – carpal tunnel and all that. The Western has an oncology ward, and if you’re walking past it you’ll often see patients, in scrubs, still hooked to IVs, having a fag.

That’s testament to how bloody difficult some people find quitting smoking: God is giving them the biggest fucking hint imaginable, and they’re still nipping out for a smoke. To paraphrase the NRA, you can have their cigarettes when you prise them out of their cold, dead hands.

Let’s not bullshit people here. Let’s be honest. Stopping smoking is shit. You don’t do it because it’s a laugh. You do it because the possible alternatives are so much worse.

18 thoughts on “Quitting cigs is hard. Let’s not pretend otherwise

  1. mupwangle says:

    As you know, I stopped about 5 years ago after smoking for about a dozen years and I didn’t find it that bad at all.

    This time.

    Every other time was utter shit and didn’t last more than a fortnight. There were a lot of other times. I suppose I was extremely lucky – something clicked without me realising it and beyond my control. I’ve tried and failed enough times though to know how hard it can be and get mightily pissed off when I hear people saying how much of a doddle it is. Frankly, they can fuck off.

    They also forget to mention that you’re hungry all the time (I’ve got from under 16 stone to nearly 18), you seem to get a cold all the bloody time (and the fact that when you smoke colds are actually better as you don’t get dry, unproductive coughs) and you dream about it and wake up thinking that you’ve started smoking again despite having never been on the moon in real life. Also they tend not to mention that nicotine patches make you feel shit too.

    I truly wish that I knew what changed in my head and how as I would be a very rich man by now. :-(

    This whole discussion is probably been reignited (see what I did there?) by the proposed ban on logos and other designs on packages. I certainly started only due to being attracted to the shiny gold B&H packet. Are they getting confused between smokers and magpies? Fuckwits.

  2. Heather Burns says:

    Will never forget visiting my mother in hospice and seeing a man in the hospice’s designated “smoking room”, wheelchair bound, with a nurse standing over the chair holding a lit cigarette to the tracheotomy hole in his throat.

  3. gary says:

    The hunger is the worst. I’m ravenous all the time, and a good two stone bigger now.

    > Are they getting confused between smokers and magpies?

    I dunno, I don’t have a problem with the packaging thing: tobacco firms wouldn’t be so against it if it didn’t have some effect on sales. I do think the govt is being cowardly though: we hate smoking, but we don’t hate it enough to sacrifice ten billion quid a year.

  4. gary says:

    Oh, I understand that. It’s the “well, I’m fucked now, might as well have a fag” attitude, or maybe the “you can’t prove the fags caused it” attitude that leads smokers to lionise Bill Hicks, who of course died from cancer in his thirties.

  5. Squander Two says:

    > tobacco firms wouldn’t be so against it if it didn’t have some effect on sales.

    Yes, but each tobacco firm is against it because it will have an effect on their ability to compete with each other. They’re afraid that smokers will switch to other brands. That doesn’t mean smokers will give up smoking. I mean, would you have stopped if the packaging had got more bland?

    Have you seen the latest stats from Ireland? The smoking ban appears to have caused a massive increase in smoking. Who could possibly have seen that coming? Apart from, you know, anyone with a fucking brain.

  6. gary says:

    > something clicked without me realising it and beyond my control

    I think that’s key, and something the stop-smoking industry doesn’t really address. Until something flips that switch in your head, your efforts are doomed.

  7. Squander Two says:

    > do think the govt is being cowardly though: we hate smoking, but we don’t hate it enough to sacrifice ten billion quid a year.

    But they don’t, though: if they hated smoking, the Houses of Parliament’s bar wouldn’t be one of the smoking ban’s exceptions. What they hate is us bloody plebs not doing what we’re told.

    I think ultimately it’s a freedom issue. Tobacco firms are legally selling a legal product to people who are legally allowed to buy and use it. It’s quite disgusting the way governments feel it’s OK to demonise them. If they want to ban the stuff, they should bloody do it. Or they could nationalise it — that’d be a laugh. But if they’re going to allow private firms to sell the stuff, they should stop treating them like Satanic mafiosi.

  8. Professor Batty says:

    I still dream about smoking cigarettes after having quit 43 years ago. I never dream about smoking reefer, I quit that about 25 years ago. I never dream about drinking. Haven’t quit that one yet.

  9. Gary says:

    > What they hate is us bloody plebs not doing what we’re told.

    I’m not sure that’s it. I think MPs genuinely believe that getting people off the smokes would be a good legacy to leave.

    The problem is when they get excited and start talking about things like barring smokers from getting NHS treatment. Stopping tobacco firms from advertising in shops doesn’t particularly rile me.

    > I mean, would you have stopped if the packaging had got more bland?

    Probably not. But would I have stopped earlier if every shop, petrol station and supermarket didn’t have a WALL OF FAGS going “smoke me! smoke me! smoke me!”? Dunno. Maybe.

    The packs are designed as they are for a reason, the proliferation of sub-brands exists for a reason, the brightly lit displays exist for a reason. They’re all part of the marketing mix, a bigger spectrum that used to include billboards, racing cars etc: “this is cool. We sponsor this. We are therefore cool. Oh look! You can buy our stuff here! That’s cool! Buy our stuff! It’ll make you cool!” etc :)

    It’s been banned for years, but I still associate Marlboro and B&H with racing cars, and I’m sure there’s still a bit of my brain saying “That means they’re exciting and glamorous!” somewhere despite the Marlboro Man dying of face cancer or whatever. I still remember the silk cut billboards, long before I smoked. Etc.

    Branding does make a difference. If I see a silver or white packet I think it’s a mild, low-tar variant; green I think it’s menthol, blue means the main ingredient is sawdust and so on. Now I know rationally that light smokes just make you inhale harder, so you get just as much crap, but I still think those colours mean less dangerous cigs. I know there’s precious little difference between different brands, but I still associate dark blue with poor people and so on.

    If you accept that packaging design is part of the marketing mix, which I do, then it’s not a huge surprise that the govt wants to extend its advertising ban to point of sale and product. If tobacco firms didn’t think pack design and POS makes a difference we’d have generic packaging already.

    Ultimately, though, what we think is irrelevant: there’s been a long campaign not just to prevent non-smokers from being exposed to smoke, but to actively persecute people who smoke. They’re forced out in the cold, taxed to fuck, and it’s just a matter of time before people who smoke will be forced to do humiliating tricks in public, naked, in exchange for a government tobacco voucher. I feel sorry for them. I don’t feel particularly sorry for the tobacco companies, and I think the packaging thing hurts the latter, not the former.

    > The smoking ban appears to have caused a massive increase in smoking.

    Cause or correlation? Because if I’d lost my job, was trapped in negative equity and couldn’t afford to go out because beer was so expensive, never mind smoking. I’d be huffing paint thinners.

    And that’s assuming the reported rise is correct. I don’t think it is.

    There’s one survey that was reported in the irish independent (4000 people, claiming 33% of the population smoked) but pretty much every other source of data indicates a decline – which you’d expect anyway, because smoking has been in decline for a very long time in Western Europe, even in Ireland :)

    That survey was compared with the 2006 eurobarometer survey, which reported fewer smokers that the 2009 survey. However, as the BMJ points out: “Eurobarometer figures for the UK… since 2002 have varied between 28% and 45%, while national figures have fallen from 26% to 21%… the measurement and monitoring of trends in smoking prevalence in EU countries at national and EU levels is inconsistent, unstandardised and in many cases infrequent.”

    Which is more likely – a nationwide smoking ban making everyone go “fuck yeah! Let’s start smoking!” out of sheer badness, or EU monitoring being an absolute shambles?

  10. Squander Two says:

    > Cause or correlation?

    I did say “appears to”. While a rise wouldn’t prove that the ban caused an increase, it would disprove that the ban caused a decrease.

    > Which is more likely – a nationwide smoking ban making everyone go “fuck yeah! Let’s start smoking!” out of sheer badness, or EU monitoring being an absolute shambles?

    Possibly both. Pretty much all of my colleagues are young twenty-something hard-partying Irish, and they’re telling me they’re not surprised at all. Loads of pubs have been creating really nice outdoor areas to get round the ban, and those bits tend to be the cool bit of the pub to be in. If just a couple of your friends smoke, you tend to go with them when they go outside the pub so you can continue the conversation. Plus of course the kudos of doing something that is not allowed that makes smnoking so popular with the under-16s has just been extended to the whole population.

    Fair points about the stats — I’ve really not looked into it — but I don’t think the increase is at all unlikely. We’ll see.

    > I think MPs genuinely believe that getting people off the smokes would be a good legacy to leave.

    Yes, absolutely. But MPs also believe that the way you get people to do something is to make it compulsory and the way you get people to stop doing something is to ban it. And when that doesn’t work, they make it even more compulsory or ban it even harder. In other words, they get annoyed when we bloody plebs don’t do what we’re told.

    > If tobacco firms didn’t think pack design and POS makes a difference we’d have generic packaging already.

    Yes, but, like I said, there are two different things the branding can affect: whether you smoke a particular brand and whether you smoke at all. Your other points about branding are all fair enough, but that particular bit of logic doesn’t hold: it’s perfectly possible for the firms to keep branding aggressively to win each other’s customers despite it having no effect on whether anyone smokes in the first place.

    > I don’t feel particularly sorry for the tobacco companies

    Me neither — apart from anything else, we’re not their market. They could lose the UK overnight and not give a fuck, the numbers they’re selling in China. But I object in principle to the state wanting to treat businesses as borderline criminal pariahs for the callous and appalling way they keep doing something perfectly legal while at the same time refusing to ban the practice because it’s so lucrative for the Treasury. As I’ve said a gazillion times, the state always sets a nasty totalitarian anti-freedom precedent by picking a popular cause first time so that the public will back it, and they always end up rolling it out to far less popular causes when it suits them. The smoking ban was a precedent that led to councils vetting the salt content of the food in pubs and the state trying to ban special offers on meat deemed too fatty. The attack on bankers’ bonuses will one day be repeated against a less hated industry sector whose contracts of employment the state feels like tearing up for whatever reason. And there’s a huge long list of companies the state are very keen on treating like tobacco firms. I prefer such power to be kept out of the hands of people whose whims change with opinion polls.

  11. Gary says:

    > Loads of pubs have been creating really nice outdoor areas to get round the ban

    Oh, I know, I’ve been in a good few of them. But that’s still against a background of two things: rapidly increasing cigarette prices and the pain in the arse factor of hardly being able to smoke anywhere. I’ve no doubt the irish can be stubborn, contrary bastards when they want to be, but for the number of smokers to rise significantly against that background while your economy goes completely to shit and your disposable income is squeezed like never before seems particularly bloody-minded, heh.

    > the state wanting to treat businesses as borderline criminal pariahs for the callous and appalling way they keep doing something perfectly legal while at the same time refusing to ban the practice because it’s so lucrative for the Treasury.

    True, it’s rank hypocrisy.

    The problem, I think, is this: smoking can affect non-smokers, so there’s a case for a public ban; smokers should still be able to smoke if they don’t harm others, so you shouldn’t prohibit it altogether. But the space between those two conflicting things is where things like advertising, POS, packaging etc happens to be, which is why it’s such a fucking mess.

    I think, too, smoking is unusual because there’s a clear link between smoke and harm to non-smokers (albeit not on the scale the “I smell tobacco and NOW I AM DYING OF CANCER” arseholes would have us believe).

    Where it’s dangerous, I think, is when the harm is more abstracted. Drink kills drinkers, but it doesn’t magically leap from their pint to your liver, therefore it’s none of the state’s business how much of it you’re doing. Aha, says the state. It causes domestic violence and drunk driving! Ah, say we, then lock people up for domestic violence and drunk driving. Ah, says the state, but look how many fuckers get away with it because the partners don’t report it and there aren’t any traffic cops any more! Let’s just ban the booze!

    And so on. We know how that one ended :)

    I do think you’re right about other initiatives. The success of the smoking lobby has perhaps been misinterpreted: anti-smoking is supposed to be about protecting the people around smokers, not the smokers themselves. However, if you miss that important distinction, if you interpret it as saving the smokers from their own fallibility, you’ve given yourself carte blanche to go after any behaviour you happen to dislike.

  12. Squander Two says:

    > smoking can affect non-smokers, so there’s a case for a public ban; smokers should still be able to smoke if they don’t harm others, so you shouldn’t prohibit it altogether. But the space between those two conflicting things is where things like advertising, POS, packaging etc happens to be, which is why it’s such a fucking mess.

    Really? You think that’s where packaging and advertising lie? I don’t see how they affect non-smokers. Explain, please.

  13. Gary says:

    It’s an indirect effect. Public health has always had an element of coercion and control to it – we think this is good, so we’ll make that easier; we think this is bad, so we’ll make it harder to do. With smoking, there’s a school of thought that since it’s clearly a bad thing, then anything you can do that doesn’t force unwilling smokers to quit is a therefore a good thing.

    The taxation on smokers is a good example of that. We know the demographics, the people most likely to keep on smoking are the poorest, but we rack the tax right up anyway because, you know, fuck ’em if they don’t want to stop.

  14. Squander Two says:

    As an aside, I would like to recount this anecdote.

    Sitting in a student committee meeting at St Andrews, listening to them discuss the huge controversy that the Union shop had briefly accidentally breached the Nestle ban by stocking some Walnut Whips, watching almost all of these earnest lefties chain-smoke. The case against Nestle is arguable. Tobacco firms are pouring money into marketing in China. Have you seen the epidemiological estimates of how many are going to die in China from smoking-related illness over the next few decades? Supposed to put AIDS in the shade.

  15. mupwangle says:

    They also unashamadly market cigs to kids in developing countries. At least everyone knows that smoking is bad so we don’t need to test it on animals anymore. That makes it OK.

  16. Professor Batty says:

    #

    Errol Morris, on smoking:

    “The attraction of smoking is that it simplifies the world into three parts. There’s you, there’s the cigarette, and everything else is the ashtray”

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