Coping with alcohol after quitting smoking

Around the world many different cultures are into their “holiday season”. And whether it is Christmas, Hannukah, New Year or Kwanza, many of us like to kick back, have some good food and some alcohol. But many ex smokers find that having a drink…even just a glass or two of wine, rekindles their desire to smoke. Sometimes the effect is unexpectedly strong and persists well beyond the few minutes that cravings usually last. There are a few other things that often make it harder not to smoke around the holiday season. At this time of year people often take the opportunity to meet up with family members and old friends they havn’t seen for a while. Ex-smokers’ old friends are more likely to be smokers themselves. And of course because of the time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere, it is too cold for smokers to stray too far from the front door when they pop out for a cigarette. The result is that many of these holiday gatherings will include walking through a small crowd of smoking smokers when you arrive and leave.

In my experience most recent ex-smokers fall into one of two camps when it comes to walking through other people’s smoke on the way out of a party: they either love it or loathe it. But it goes without saying that the ones who like to walk slowly and try to inhale just a little bit more of that smoke are at greater risk of going back to smoking than the ones who are holding their breath in disgust.

So at the holidays we have two of the main risk factors for relapse….alcohol consumption plus exposure to other smokers and their cigarettes. The alcohol triggers the memory from the past that the person almost always had a smoke when they had a drink. It leads the brain to anticipate that they may be about to smoke, and triggers cravings. So what can the recent ex-smoker do to avoid relapsing back to smoking during the holiday party season?

As stated in my earlier posts on this topic, I usually recommend that an ex-smoker should avoid all alcohol for the first 4 weeks of a quit attempt. Now you may think I’m crazy…no alcohol over the holidays!...but its not such a big price to pay in order to stay quit and add 10 healthy years to your life! But many ex-smokers have been quit for some time and feel they should be getting back into a normal routine, including being able to enjoy a holiday party with a drink or two. In that situation my advice is as follows:

1. If you can, arrange to go with or meet a non-smoking buddy at the party. Tell that person that you may drink a little but you are NOT going to smoke, and you would appreciate their support. In the end it is down to you, and only your choice, but it can be helpful to have a friend around who can remind you that you don’t smoke anymore and steer you out of harms way.

2. Have a clear, low drinking limit. This goes without saying if you are driving, but even if you are not driving, the less you drink the less likely you’ll be to smoke.

3. Have an emergency supply of nicotine replacement therapy with you. Its far better to relapse to NRT than smoking.

4. Have your journey home pre-planned, and plan to make it with a non-smoker. Late night relapsing at the end of the evening is very common, so make that trip with a supportive non-smoker.

You may get some additional advice from my earlier posts on this topic, and I’d also be interested to hear from your own experiences and tips, so feel free to add your own comments. Happy Holidays!
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.