Quit smoking the time-travel way Other ways of kicking the habit


It's that time of year again, when smokers everywhere resolve to kickthe habit. But making a clean break often proves more difficult thananticipated. Kevin Courtney, occasional smoker for nearly 30 years, considers his options

I've hit on the ultimate way to quit smoking. What you do is, you build a time machine, go back to the moment just before you took your first cigarette, and stop yourself from starting. This foolproof method has added benefits - you can also prevent yourself doing other things you regret having done, avert the unforeseen disasters that have dogged your life thus far, and stop Westlife from forming.

Before I launch my new Time Travel Quit Smoking Method, though, I have to iron out a few glitches: building the time machine is proving problematic, and I can't quite recall exactly what date I had that first cigarette - but I'm sure once I get it up and running, it will wipe the nicotine patch off the planet.

I tried my first cigarette at around 15, and since then I've lost count of how many times I've tried to quit. I've been an on-again/off- again smoker for more than two-thirds of my life now, almost 30 years of huffing and puffing and stinking the house up. I'm what you might call a"occasional" or "social" smoker - I don't light up during the day, only when I'm at the pub or nightclub - but often I'll smoke simply out of boredom, or to put off an unpleasant chore (like writing an article about quitting smoking). In recent times, I (and everyone within 50 yards) have noticed that my smoking is accompanied by a chronic cough - I recently went on a trip to Greece and spent the entire time lighting up and coughing, much to the discomfort of my companions. When my (non-smoking) parents read this and find out that I still haven't completely kicked the habit, they're going to kill me. Unless the ciggies get me first, of course.

Nearly a third of Irish adults still smoke the dreaded weed, and though two-thirds of smokers say they would prefer not to smoke, only a small percentage actually make a concerted effort to quit. Every year, around 7,000 people die in Ireland from smoking-related causes, and cigarettes can be blamed in 90 per cent of lung cancer deaths, 25 per cent of deaths from heart disease, and 75 per cent of deaths from bronchitis and emphysema. That's 10 times more than are killed on our roads every year. But will these horrendous figures convince any of us to kick the habit for good? Not a snowball's hope in hell. Shock statistics, dire warnings and graphic pictures of diseased organs do nothing to alter smokers' behaviour.

Still, a few brave souls will make the effort to quit in the New Year, spurred on by increased smoking restrictions in public and in the workplace, and by Charlie McCreevy's latest hike on a packet of fags. I'll be one of the many smokers who are planning to stub out the ciggies for good, take a deep breath, and head into a healthy 2003. But how many of us will make it to 2004 without relapsing? Depressingly few, according to many of the statistics. The rate of recidivism for smokers is enormous, and this knowledge alone might make some of us shrug our shoulders and say what's the use in giving up - sure, we'll only end up going back on them again.

But God loves a trier, and I'm sure there's a place in heaven for us, even though we'll probably arrive there ahead of schedule. Some might say, however, that smokers don't try hard enough. Psychological factors play a huge part in why people smoke - and why they find it so difficult to quit.

Smoking cessation guru Allen Carr reckons many smokers are reluctant to quit not simply because of nicotine addiction, but because of fear. They are afraid of having to go about their lives without the prop of smoking, and they are afraid of facing social situations or stressful events without the crutch of a cigarette. Many people define themselves as "smokers", and fear the transmogrification into becoming a "non-smoker". Smokers develop routines that allow them to indulge in their habit; the prospect of having to change those routines makes panic set in, and the smoker beats a quick retreat to the smoky comfort zone. For smokers who grew up with glamorous images of smoking in movies, on television, in magazines and on rock videos, the fear is that, if they don't smoke, they won't be cool any more. And, as everyone knows, there's nothing worse than not being cool.

Unless we change our thinking, the argument goes, no amount of quit smoking aids, gadgets, supplements or programmes is going to help. It's like that old how-many- psychiatrists conundrum: the lightbulb has to really want to change itself. For some, that might mean choosing to take a walk right after dinner, instead of sitting on the couch and lighting up. For others, it might mean skipping that cup of coffee at noon and having an orange juice instead, because the coffee is too inextricably linked with smoking a cigarette. For many, it might mean skipping the Friday night fandango down the pub (probably the scariest prospect of all).

Most smoking cessation experts agree that the best way of quitting is to change thinking and behaviour in conjunction with some sort of aid to help wean you off the drug. The most popular stop smoking aid is NRT, either in the form of a patch, chewing gum or a nicotine inhaler. Sales of nicotine replacement products have soared in the past few years, but sales of cigarettes have also soared, suggesting that NRT has merely become an adjunct to continued smoking.

That's not to say that NRT isn't effective in helping smokers kick the habit. Studies have shown that willpower alone may not be enough to defeat the addiction, but that for a determined quitter, NRT can help the resolve.

"Treatments such as nicotine replacement therapy can dramatically boost a smoker's chances of quitting, by reducing the withdrawal symptoms," says Dr Pat Manning, consultant respiratory physician at Bon Secours Hospital in Dublin.

"Approximately 72 per cent of smokers actually want to quit, but find they can't," says Dr Fenton Howell, chairman of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health). "Many make repeated attempts to quit by willpower alone. However, it is extremely difficult to fight both the physical and psychological addiction and hence many quit attempts are unsuccessful."

Many people, haunted by the demons which keep them locked in an endless cycle of quitting and relapsing, are turning to natural methods to help them deal with withdrawal symptoms. Acupuncture isn't acknowledged by the medical profession as an effective aid to smoking cessation yet, but more and more people are finding it a valuable aid in helping them overcome their addictive inclinations. Acupuncture helps the body to detox and withdraw from nicotine; it soothes cravings, calms down that fidgety feeling, and ventilates the lungs to help breathing. It also curbs the appetite, a crucial point for many people, because they associate quitting with eating too much and putting on weight. Often, an acupuncturist will also prescribe a herbal remedy to help soothe congestion or ease a cough. It just so happens that my sister, Deirdre Courtney, is an acupuncturist, so it's off to the Priory Clinic in Stillorgan for some free advice.

"Acupuncture doesn't stop people smoking," she warns me. "Nothing at the end of the day will stop you putting that cigarette in your mouth. My advice to people who want to quit is, don't tell everyone you're quitting. That will just put too much pressure on you. Your friends and family will be constantly asking you how you're doing, which will remind you of smoking. When friends offer you a cigarette, don't say you've quit, just say: 'No thanks, not at the moment'."

That's all very well, sis, but most people who've tried and failed to quit spend their time not telling anyone they still smoke, secretly puffing away when they think nobody's looking.

"If you're back on the cigarettes, and smoking secretly, everyone will findout sooner or later. You'll eventually end up lighting up in front of them, at a party or a social gathering."

Her final piece of advice? "There's never a good time to give up smoking. The people who talk about quitting all the time never actually quit, so don't go on about it."

I won't say another word.

Nicotine replacement therapy: whether in the form of chewing gum, patch or inhaler, this is the most popular method for e trying to quit. NiQuitin CQ has just launched a discreet new "clear" patch aimed at fashion-conscious young smokers. The clear patch is less visible than the regular patch, so it's more discreet, allowing the smoker to get their nicotine without flaunting it. The downside is that many smokers are over-using nicotine replacement products.

NicoBloc: the first Irish quit smoking product has already shown high success rates in trials. Here's how it works: before you light up, you put a drop or two of NicoBloc on the filter of your cigarette. The stuff is made from approved food grade ingredients, and it absorbs 90 per cent of the nicotine, tar and other chemicals, thus helping to wean the smoker off nicotine while allowing them to still puff away for a few weeks.

The holistic approach: acupuncture, hypnotherapy and herbal remedies have proved effective in helping to relax smokers trying to get off the nicotine roller-coaster.

Cold turkey: works for .001 per cent of superhumans, but not effective for ordinary mortals unless backed up with acupuncture, nicotine replacement, or several months in a monastery.

Zyban: an antidepressant drug which helps the brain recalibrate itself into a shiny, happy, non-smoking mindset. May have unpleasant side-effects.

Allen Carr: the world's leading guru on the subject has sold millions of copies of his Easy Way To Stop Smoking book. It's said that once you read the book, you have no choice but to quit, but if you do go back to smoking, then reading it again will do you no good.

And the time machine? I'm still working on it - OK?