Quitting smoking is tough. Not only do smokers suffer the physiological effects of nixing nicotine, but they also grapple with the emotional consequences of switching up their daily routine. Instead of taking a 15-minute smoke break to decompress after a tough meeting, people who are trying to quit have to develop new habits that don’t involve puffing on a cigarette.
“The process of quitting smoking is stressful, so how you support someone can really impact what they’re going through,” says Aimee Richardson, a tobacco cessation counselor at Henry Ford Health. Nag them at every turn? They may want to rebel and sneak cigarettes when you’re not around. Jokingly hand them a cigarette or smoke in front of them? You could inadvertently sabotage their efforts to quit.
A better approach: Support your loved one – and let him or her know you’re there for the long haul with Richardson’s suggested do’s and don’ts:
- Start a conversation. It can be difficult to get someone to open up about quitting smoking. To break the ice, react positively any time your loved one hints at wanting to quit. Then let them know that you think it’s great that they’re trying to give up tobacco – and ask what you can do to help them in their efforts.
- Ask for specifics. Instead of assuming you know what your loved one needs, ask how you can best support them in their efforts to quit. Maybe he needs a perfectly-timed distraction when he’s most likely to slip. Or maybe she wants a dressed-up water bottle so her hands aren’t free to hold a cigarette. Ask so that you can do what’s most helpful.
- Listen. Quitting smoking is your loved one’s battle, not yours. Ask them open-ended questions like “When do you crave cigarettes most?” or “What is your biggest stressor right now?” or “What can I do to make it easier on you?” Then listen to their responses and resist the urge to insert your own comments. If you remain quiet, they may feel safe opening up.
- Offer distractions. Suggest smoke-free activities. Offer to take a walk with them, go to the movies or plan a family game night. Since smoking is often tied to other daily activities, help your loved one come up with healthy substitutes. Does he typically smoke in social situations? Occupy his hands with a fruity drink instead. Does she smoke during her morning commute? Give her a Starbucks gift card so she can sip on coffee and ditch the cigarette. You might even put together a “quit kit” with items like chewing gum, hard candy, lollipops, straws, toothpicks and a stress ball to squeeze for when cravings hit.
- Recognize and reward success. People might not tell others they’re trying to quit smoking because they don’t want to fail. If you notice someone you love is no longer smoking, commend them for their efforts. Every attempt to quit is worth celebrating, no matter how long (or short) the person has been smoke-free. Send flowers or a card, surprise them with movie tickets or a fun night out.
- Express disappointment. If your loved one slips up, bite your tongue. Many former smokers attempt to quit several times before they’re successful. If you understand the smoker is fighting two battles – their physical dependence and the disruption in their daily habits – you may be more compassionate.
- Don’t take moody outbursts personally. When smokers are trying to quit, they may feel like they don’t have control over their emotions. As a friend or loved one, the best thing you can do is avoid taking the quitter’s irritability personally – especially when they first begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms. (Symptoms usually improve after about two weeks).
- Push alternatives. Aside from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medications for smoking cessation, smoking alternatives like e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco and cigarillos come with their own set of risks and side effects. Resist the urge to offer these as an alternative to cigarettes.
- Be a nag. People often smoke to relieve stress. If you nag someone who is trying to quit or judge their decisions, you might add to their stress level and make it even more difficult to quit.
- Derail their efforts. If you’re a smoker, too, and you and your loved one used to smoke together, avoid smoking around them. Better yet, commit to quit yourself. Make your home smoke-free and avoid situations that make smoking more enticing.
Smoking increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer – and it’s the single largest cause of preventable death in the United States. But deciding to quit doesn’t mean a person no longer wants to smoke. Cravings can be intense and timing the effort can be important, too.
“For some people, the holidays can be really stressful, so waiting until after the new year may make sense,” Richardson says. “For other people, the responsibilities, excitement and festivities the holidays bring can be a good distraction from cravings.”
No matter when your loved one decides to quit, it’s never too early to get prepared. Help him or her research the different ways to approach quitting — things like mini-quits where you don’t smoke for a brief period of time, or gradual weaning, where you cut down on the number of cigarettes you smoke each week. Or, look into FDA-approved medications, gums and patches to help smokers quit.
Check out Henry Ford’s Freedom from Smoking Program for more information. The next class begins in January.
Aimee Richardson, MCHES, CHWC, CTTS, is an experienced health educator and certified tobacco treatment specialist who counsels patients and teaches Freedom from Smoking classes through the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.