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Stopping smoking: what science says works

If you’re going to quit, you may as well do it properly. These are the methods with the highest success rates. 

30 May 2018
4 minute read

woman breaking cigarette in half

Ex-smokers often report that quitting is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Not only do they go through physical and mental withdrawal, but they also continue to associate smoking with triggers like eating, drinking or socialising, so they are constantly reminded of its absence.

In the UK over the last decade, people who have tried to quit are only successful 15.7% of the time. In South Africa, slightly dated research has shown that while 68.1% of smokers have tried to quit, only 14.1% succeeded.

However, stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health, reducing your risk of developing cancer, emphysema, heart disease, strokes and many other diseases. To help you become a quitter, we researched the best ways to give up smoking, according to science.

Smokers don’t like their habit to cost them any more than it already is.

Nicotine replacement

One of the more effective ways to quit smoking is to use nicotine replacement, in the form of gum, nasal sprays, inhalers, patches or lozenges. This method gives the smoker the nicotine that they crave, but without the other harmful chemicals present in cigarettes. Once the smoking habit is broken, the smoker can then wean themselves off the nicotine itself.

According to research by the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group, tobacco replacement is an effective part of a smoking cessation strategy, increasing long-term quitting rates by 50%.

Prescription medication

There are certain prescription medications that can help smokers to quit. These generally work by interfering with the nicotine receptors in the brain so that the smoker gets less pleasure from smoking and the desire for nicotine is reduced. They can be used in conjunction with nicotine replacement, or on their own, as directed by a doctor. Two well-known anti-smoking medications are Varenicline (Champix) and Bupropion (Zyban).

Research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information showed that around one in five people succeeded at quitting using Zyban or Champix. However, these medications are not without side effects, and users should consult frequently with their doctors about any symptoms they may be experiencing.

A financial incentive

The success rates of programmes that offer a financial incentive for quitting (or a financial penalty for not quitting) are surprisingly high. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that people who deposited $150 and were offered $650 more if they successfully refrained from smoking, had a success rate of 52.3% at six months.

So, if you can find someone to police your smoking and pay you for successfully giving up, this may be your best bet yet.

Stop-smoking courses

The most famous course that helps smokers to quit is Allen Carr’s method. The idea behind it is that it helps smokers to understand the smoking trap – the reasons they do smoke, rather than the reasons that they shouldn’t. Independent studies have shown that Allen Carr’s method has a quitting success rate of 41.1% after 13 months.

The Allen Carr method is available in South Africa, but the local Smokenders programme is also popular. It claims a success rate of 90%, but not whether that success rate is sustainable. Those who don’t quit on this course can attend the next course free of charge.

Turning to e-cigarettes

Quitting success rates in the UK have increased radically – nearly 20% of those who attempted in the first half of 2017 managed to kick the habit (compared to 15.7% in the last decade), according to a report by the University College of London. One of the reasons is that people are turning to e-cigarettes.

Vaping is less bad for you than smoking. People who swop cigarettes for vaping don’t inhale the tar and other dangerous chemicals found in cigarettes (although they may choose a fluid that contains nicotine). So, this is a good way to kick your cigarette smoking habit, but the ultimate goal should be to stop inhaling chemicals altogether, rather than to replace smoking with a new, different habit.

Go cold turkey!

Smokers say that they would rather taper off their smoking habit than go cold turkey. Science says that’s not the best way to quit. According to a study by the University of Oxford, those quitters who stop immediately have a better success rate than those who reduce their smoking over time. The participants did use nicotine replacement methods as well.

Four weeks after quitting, 49% of the abrupt group were successful, while 39% of the gradual group were. And after six months, 22% of the cold turkeys were still not smoking, while only 15% of the gradual group were not smoking.

The bottom line

Giving up smoking isn’t easy, and many people who quit smoking have tried and failed a number of times before they finally succeed. So, don’t be disheartened if you haven’t succeeded yet! There is no question that quitting smoking is the right thing to do for your health, so find the method that’s right for you, and get quitting.


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