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Jim Hesson has a head start on his New Year’s resolutions. After smoking for 45 years he has been tobacco-free for more than two months, and he couldn’t be happier about it. Hesson knew for years he should quit smoking and, as with other smokers, had even tried to quit once before. He had been told by doctors he had the beginning stages of emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and even that wasn’t enough to overcome his desire to keep smoking.
Hesson’s smoking history is typical of many smokers. Both his parents smoked and he started dabbling with cigarettes in his teens. At 18 he joined the Army; many of his fellow soldiers smoked and cigarettes were included in their C-rations. He never thought he’d become addicted and still be smoking 45 years later.
Hesson’s denial of the serious nature of his nicotine addiction was similar to other addictions.
“I told myself, ‘It won’t happen to me,’ and ‘This one cigarette won’t do much damage,’” Hesson said. “The problem was I was smoking almost two packs a day and it was happening to me.”
Smoking began to impact his passion for hunting, forcing him to stay behind in the skiff, unable to breathe well enough to hike. His moustache and fingertips had turned yellow. Yet, voicing the ambivalence of many smokers, he “wanted to quit but didn’t want to quit.”
So, why did Hesson quit? While a patient at Bartlett Regional Hospital for an unrelated illness, he was approached by tobacco treatment specialist Lynda Koski. Like every other patient entering the hospital, he was asked if he smoked and if he wanted to quit. Though Hesson doesn’t remember saying he wanted to quit when asked, Lynda paid him a visit anyway. She told him about the 7-week “Let’s Quit” class she would be facilitating, and he agreed to come and check it out.
“I almost didn’t go to the first meeting, but I’m glad I did,” Hesson recalled. “We weren’t asked to quit until the third meeting, and we worked on setting a ‘quit date’ and preparing a ‘quit plan.’ We were allowed to evolve into the idea of quitting. I was never into group things or meetings, but after every class I felt pumped and looked forward to the next one. It’s really the positive power of peer pressure. You learn from others and get support.”
Over the 7-week period, Hesson learned many facts about nicotine addiction, the physical and behavioral science of quitting and staying quit. He learned that trying to quit cold turkey has been found to have the lowest success rate, that nicotine is as addictive or as difficult to kick as heroin, and that using nicotine replacement therapy and/or anti-craving medications, in addition to behavioral change and peer support, was the best way to quit smoking. He also learned how to use patches and lozenges for nicotine withdrawal.
“The cravings I have now are psychological, not physical; like during the holidays, or just driving home from work,” he said. “But now I have tools to use like ‘this feeling will pass’, or driving home a different route.”
He also found that telling friends about his quitting made him feel accountable and provided support in addition to the group.
Addressing the possibility of relapse is another tool taught to participants. They practice an exercise called “What am I going do if…?” to have a plan in place when triggers to smoke or cravings arise. They were warned not to get over-confident, that just like other addictions, the potential for relapse is very real.
When asked what is different now that he’s quit, Hesson’s enthusiasm is evident. “It’s so cool not to have to worry about how long an airplane flight is, or having enough cigarettes, or having to go outside in the cold to smoke, or being seen smoking, or smelling bad and worried someone in the grocery store will smell it on you. My breathing has improved significantly and my health is way better. I shoveled the driveway this morning and felt great.”
• Wendy Hamilton is the Tobacco Program Manager for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.