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Ready to quit smoking? Here’s how to do it successfully

Quitting smoking is one of the most important things you can do for your health – now and into the future. Here are the evidence-based strategies to help you kick the habit.

How many smokers do you know? Chances are, a lot less than you used to. According to the latest statistics, 12% of Australians aged 14 and over smoke daily – down from 24% in 1991.

And a growing number of people never take up the habit – 62% of adults in 2016 reported they’ve never smoked, compared to 49% in 1991. “There are now more former smokers than current smokers in Australia,” says Quit Victoria director Dr Sarah White.

Quitting smoking isn’t easy. But there are effective, evidence-based strategies to help. And the best bit is you don’t have to rely on willpower alone.

Quitting smoking boosts your health at any age

Whether you’re a pack-a-day smoker or a social smoker, there are benefits of quitting smoking at any age. People who quit sooner have the largest reduction in health risks, but you still benefit from quitting smoking even if you’ve already been diagnosed with a smoking-related disease.

“Stopping smoking decreases the risk of lung and other cancers, heart attack, stroke and chronic disease compared with continued smoking,” says Mark Brooke, CEO of Lung Foundation Australia. “If you have an existing lung condition, the best thing you can do is quit smoking. Quitting will help you with your symptoms and potentially stop your condition getting worse.”

In fact, your body starts repairing itself as soon as you’ve smoked your last cigarette. After 12 hours, almost all nicotine is out of your system. After two days, your sense of smell and taste start to return. After one year, your risk of heart disease is much lower. After 10 years, your risk of lung cancer is halved.

How to quit smoking

Going cold turkey and relying on willpower works for some people. However, research shows the most effective way to quit smoking is with a combination of counselling support from a health professional such as a psychologist and nicotine-replacement therapy – patches, gum, nasal sprays or lozenges that provide small doses of nicotine in the bloodstream, or other forms of prescription medication that reduce withdrawal symptoms.

This combination approach is so effective, Mark says your chances of quitting successfully increase from 3% for unaided quit attempts to 30%.

“When people try to quit cold turkey, they're suffering the full extent of nicotine withdrawal,” says Dr White. “Nicotine-replacement therapies help manage nicotine withdrawal symptoms, while counselling – or ‘behavioural intervention’ – helps people manage habits and triggers that cause them to want a cigarette, like irritability or always having a cigarette with coffee. You really need to retrain some of that behaviour, not just address nicotine withdrawal.”

Professor Nick Zwar, a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, recommends combining two forms of nicotine-replacement therapy to help resist the cravings. “Using a long-acting form like the nicotine patch in combination with a short-acting, more rapid-onset form like gum, lozenges or spray is more effective than one form alone,” he says.

Support from your loved ones can either help or hinder your quitting journey. “Some people use family and friends as a way of keeping themselves accountable, while other people don’t want the scrutiny from family and friends,” says Dr White.  

There are also apps to help keep you on track:

Can e-cigarettes help you quit smoking?

There’s no evidence that e-cigarettes – battery-operated devices that feel similar to cigarettes and produce a vapour for inhalation but don’t burn tobacco – or ‘vaping’ will help you quit smoking.

Plus, there are concerns around the safety of e-cigarettes, which contain chemicals that may be harmful.

“We don't know the long-term or even medium-term risks of e-cigarettes,” says Dr White. “And there are no devices on the market in Australia that have any consumer safety standards whatsoever.”

Will I put on weight when I stop smoking?

Many people worry that quitting smoking will result in significant weight gain. However, research shows that people gain an average of 4–5kg over five years. To put that in perspective, you’d need to gain a whopping 40kg to equal the risk of developing heart disease posed by smoking.

A belief that you’re too stressed to quit is another common myth, says Dr White. “People who have quit, even people with mental health conditions, report having better psychological health and wellbeing after they quit smoking,” she says.

Contrary to what you might think, if you’ve tried to quit in the past and failed, evidence shows you’re more likely to succeed with future attempts.

“People learn from previous attempts to quit,” says Professor Zwar. “If you keep trying and get support, you can learn how not to go back to smoking and succeed in quitting.”

What are the first steps to quitting smoking?

chat with your GP about how to quit smoking is a great first step, especially if you have an existing health condition. Your GP can help with advice about nicotine-replacement therapy, including patches, gum and lozenges subsidised by the government on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), and prescription medications.

They can also refer you to a psychologist for extra support and put you in touch with Quitline, a confidential telephone counselling service staffed by experts trained in quitting smoking. Quitline also offers digital support tools, including QuitCoach, which creates a personalised quitting plan, and QuitTxt, which sends you text messages every day to help keep you motivated.

If you or your family needs mental health help when it comes to quitting smoking, HCF can connect you with the support. Email us at wellbeing@hcf.com.au to find out more.

Words by Angela Tufvesson
First published August 2020

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