Smokers can quit smoking by joining a cessation program. Programs should be chosen based on time constraints, costs and their ability to address the psychosocial and physical aspects of smoking.

It’s never too late to stop smoking. Consider this: within one year of quitting, former smokers reduce their chances of heart disease by 50 percent; after 12 years, risk of lung cancer may plummet by 70 percent; and after 15 years, the risk of dying from smoking-related diseases is the same as for someone who has never smoked

For most smokers, quitting is tantamount to competing in the Olympics. According to the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, most smokers relapse at least once, sometimes several times, in their battle to quit. It can take months or even years, says Dr. Lew Pliamm, a clinical consultant at the Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto. “People who have smoked for 20 to 30 years can take up to a year to quit.” Some women don’t reach their goal until pregnancy spurs them on, but whatever the situation, butting out requires a steely resolve and loads of support from friends and family. The good news? There’s never been a better time than the present to quit, as family doctors gear up to help motivate smokers, and cessation products flood the market.

For Molly Swartz, 49, dropping her pack-a-day habit was like “losing an appendage.” In her family photo albums, the Toronto mother of two is rarely seen without a cigarette in hand. “On my wedding day, in the hospital after giving birth to my children – a cigarette is always there.” After 32 years of being a slave to the habit, Swartz finally decided to quit. “Every cigarette I smoked tasted flat, I hated the smell. I was sick and fired of sneaking out onto front porches and balconies.” Two previous attempts were both aborted by family crises that sent her reeling back to her old ways, but now, a nonsmoker for 10 months, Swartz feels she’s really butted out for good. But it wasn’t easy. First, she recorded her smoking habits for a week, including the reasons behind every cigarette. They included everything from hunger, boredom and anxiety to daily chores such as talking on the phone or doing housework. Dr. Pliamm prescribed a high-dose nicotine patch. “The first week was glorious,” she recalls. “I was euphoric.” The following six months were not so great. After a couple of weeks she was feeling antsy, uncomfortable and eating everything in sight. “I was missing that best friend.” Indeed, after weaning herself off the patch, Swartz fell into the depths of depression. “I think I was grieving the loss of that friend.”

Before choosing a cessation method, consider your circumstances, advises Dr. Pliamm. Programs with time constraints can put unnecessary pressure on a smoker. If you enter a six-week program, what happens if you still haven’t been able to stop after the period is over? By going at your own pace, you increase your chances of quitting for good. Think about money too: costs can range from zero to hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

The most effective programs address both the psychosocial and physical aspects of the addiction. It’s not just the nicotine in cigarettes that hooks smokers, but the partnering of cigarettes with drinking coffee, listening to music or talking to friends. “I had to get out of the house when I was trying to quit,” recalls Swartz. Or sometimes she would simply go to bed, at 7 in the evening if she had to, to stave off the cravings.

Choosing a program is the easy part – staying smoke-free really tests your mettle. You may experience withdrawal, including emotional outbursts, sleeping problems, tremors, headaches and increased appetite. Each of these will pass in time, and all you can do is adjust to them accordingly. In Swartz’s case, she often couldn’t concentrate, which made reading difficult. “So I got busy doing other things instead,” she says. “I took up needlepoint to keep my hands occupied, indulged in low-fat careful snacking on fresh veggies, and I joined a gym.” Though Swartz was always physically active as a smoker – “I huffed and puffed through exercises” – she says the difference is remarkable. It helps to remove any temptation: hide ashtrays and lighters, and throw away any matches and cigarettes you may have; if smoke-filled environments, such as parties or bars, are hard to abide without getting the urge, avoid them if you can while you’re still new to the nonsmoking set.

Support groups such as Dr. Pliamm’s are a safe haven for people who have the urge to smoke now and again. Other group members are on hand to try to dissuade you from lighting up. Statistics show that it’s this kind of support in conjunction with the reduction in nicotine that eventually weans people off cigarettes. “I find it invaluable,” says Swartz. “I still go once a month. I’m afraid if something bad happens again, I might not be able to handle it.”

What happens if you sneak a cigarette? Remember, you haven’t failed. Very few people can successfully quit on the first try. Just put out the cigarette and think about why you picked it up.

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