By Alanna Kennedy
Struggling With Smoking?
New research and guidelines can help you quit
By Alanna Kennedy
Any smoker who has tried to quit will probably tell you just how hard it is to kick the habit. There are 45 million smokers in the United States today, despite the fact that smoking causes an estimated 438,000 American deaths each year, including approximately 170,000 from tobacco-related cancer. But there’s good news for those who want to stop smoking: Research now suggests that quitting with a buddy can improve the odds of success—and there are more tools than ever to help those seeking to quit.
Researchers recently analyzed the smoking behavior of more than 12,000 people from 1971 to 2003. They concluded that quitting as part of a group or a pair leads to a higher rate of success than when smokers try to quit on their own. For example, when a spouse quits smoking, the chance that the person’s husband or wife will smoke drops by 67 percent. If a friend stops smoking, a person’s likelihood of smoking falls by 36 percent. Even trying to quit with a co-worker betters the odds of success.
Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is the increasingly negative impact that being a smoker has had on a person’s social standing, says James H. Fowler, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-author of the new study, which was published in the May 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. “In the 1970s, there wasn’t an association between whether or not you smoked and how essential you were to your social network,” he says. “You could have many friends or few friends, and none of that would have anything to do with if you smoked.” But researchers noticed an interesting shift in the late 1980s. “All of a sudden, the smokers were really getting pushed to the outside of their social network,” he says. The change in a smoker’s social standing has led to whole groups of smokers quitting together, he notes, because “smoking is not only bad for physical health, it is also bad for social health.”
Still, deciding to quit smoking, even with a buddy, is only one step in the process. It is important to choose the methods that will help support you when you quit. This May, the U.S. Public Health Service released an updated version of its clinical guidelines for treating tobacco use and dependence, which were first released in 1996 and last updated in 2000. The new guidelines emphasize the use of medications, such as Zyban (bupropion) or Chantix (varenicline). They also highlight the potential benefits of group therapy or counseling. “What we’re finding in the data is that the combination of medications and counseling is really the most powerful way we have to help people who want to quit to do so and to stay quit,” explains Thomas J. Glynn, a psychologist and the director of cancer science and trends for the American Cancer Society (ACS). Tobacco dependency is a physical addiction, notes Glynn, but it is also a mental addiction.