Quitting smoking is so hard that most smokers kick themselves for even starting.
Not everyone who smokes enjoys it, as evident by the nearly 7 out of 10 smokers who’ve said they want to quit completely.
While many smokers have switched to e-cigarettes, those people shouldn’t be considered nonsmokers. They’re still slaves to nicotine. It’s just delivered in a less flammable way.
But quitting — as in getting out of nicotine addiction once and for all — takes way more than a little willpower.
A study recently appearing in BMJ Open suggests the number of times it takes to quit smoking for good is much higher that experts once thought.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests 8 to 11 attempts. The American Cancer Society believes 8 to 10. The Australian Cancer Council is less optimistic with 12 to 14 attempts.
“Smoking cessation is a difficult and complex process, and smokers use many methods and approaches to achieve cessation,” the recent study begins. “Knowing how many quit attempts it takes an average smoker to quit is important as it can frame different narratives about the quitting process.”
The study by researchers at the University of Toronto suggests it’s more likely it’ll take a smoker 30 attempts or more to go a full year without any cigarettes.
If that’s the case, the road to quitting smoking is a long and bumpy one.
Factoring in 30 attempts
When assessing how many attempts a smoker will traditionally make before they’re off the habit, researchers used data from the Ontario Tobacco Survey.
The sample consisted of 4,501 recent smokers, 3,960 were still smoking.
During the three-year period people were in the study, 1,277 people made an attempt to quit smoking. On average, it took about 2.7 attempts per person.
The majority of the study participants were daily smokers with either low smoking “heaviness,” or a lag time after waking before their first cigarette.
Researchers asked study participants whether they’d had a cigarette within a year after quitting. If the person answered “yes,” then it wasn’t considered a successful quit.
That’s a strict definition. Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking knows there is often a stumble here and there, such as having one at a party or during the midst of a particularly stressful day.
But even with the definitive knowledge that cigarettes are lethal, it’s the addiction that keeps the habit going.
There have been studies that suggest nicotine is as addictive as heroin, cocaine, or alcohol. Because of that, attempts to quit are often unsuccessful because of withdrawal, stress, and weight gain.
It also takes some trial and error to find out which method works best for a person, whether it’s quitting “cold turkey” or using a nicotine replacement therapy like gum or patches.
So, researchers calculate, it takes a person a realistic 30 attempts to quit smoking, the number of attempts nearly three times higher for daily smokers compared to the occasional smoker.
Letting smokers know how many times it takes to quit could be a double-edged sword and may not be helpful, the researchers noted.
“It may be that some smokers may be discouraged by hearing how difficult it can be to quit smoking,” the study states.
Then again, it may make for an interesting statistic for cigarette packs.
While many people could stay away from cigarettes after a year, about a third will experience some kind of relapse.
Since most smokers start in adolescence with an average attempt to quit each year, the average smoker can expect to quit in their late 40s or early 50s, which is when most people finally quit smoking.
A Healthline reader survey also revealed how tough it can be to quit.
The online survey garnered 552 responses. Of those, 67 people listed themselves as current smokers with 37 participants saying they were trying to quit. Another 165 said they were ex-smokers. The rest have never smoked.
In total, 259 survey respondents said they have tried to quit. Of them, 122 had made one or two attempts. Another 81 had tried 10 or fewer times while 25 said they had tried more than 10 times. The rest didn't answer that particular question.
Of those, 138 went "cold turkey" in their attempt to quit. Another 47 used a nicotine patch, gum or lozenge. Another 24 tried medication while 19 used e-cigarettes in an attempt to kick the habit. The rest didn't answer.
Somewhere in the middle
I’ve been smoking nearly every day since I was 14, hooked on a pack a day for more than a decade.
After 20 years, my affinity for cigarettes is finally wearing off.
I’m now 34 years old. I can still run a few miles with ease, but as CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden says, there’s no such thing as a healthy smoker.
Basically, because I’ve smoked for so long, I’m inevitably sick. That’s why I’m focused on quitting.
I’m sick of having to go outside. I’m sick of going through airport security again during a layover. I’m sick of having to hide from kids at parties. I’m sick of always having to go out and buy cigarettes.
Most of all, I’m sick of the idea that someday cigarettes will make me too sick to do anything about it.
Today, for this go around, I’m back in the dreaded Day Three.
I have in no way quit smoking yet. I’m still deep in those woods. I am, however, actively working on quitting smoking.
This time around, however, I’m fully aware that I cannot have a cigarette here and there and think I’ll be fine. I won’t. I’ll get right back up to a pack a day, like I have with my half dozen attempts before this one.
But at least those failed attempts have taught me a few important things about my habit, my addiction, and, most importantly, how it can affect my health.
This may be the attempt that works for me. It may not.
But I’m not quitting-quitting anytime soon.