Why a Little Smoking Can Hurt You (and How to Stop)

Quit Smoking

I was deep in the depths of ridiculously bad reality TV (I'm talking hardcore Housewives and TiVoed Rock of Love: Charm School)-when a nattily attired ad exec named Don brought me back to the beauty of flawlessly executed television drama. And, although my IQ is forever grateful to Mad Men for this upgrade (and I can't get enough of those skinny ties and sharkskin suits)-I will admit relief that I won't be exposed to a bit of Mr. Draper's second-hand smoke.

Workplace mores about cigarette smoking have changed drastically since the '60s (I'll be damned if your supervisor whips out a cigarette case and ashtray at your next staff meeting)-so much so that this July, the University of Pennsylvania Health System is banning smokers (yes, you read that right-not smoking-but actual smokers) and will decline to hire users of cigars, cigarettes, and chew.

And apparently, this sort of policy is not novel-Cleveland Clinic was one of the first organizations to introduce a "tobacco free" hiring policy in 2007, subjecting new hires to urine testing for nicotine.

So, as pressure mounts and Mr. Draper's pack-a-day habit is increasingly banned in the workplace (not to mention bars, restaurants, and college campuses across the country)-what happens to those of us who innocently took our first puff on a Marlboro Light circa Spring Break 2003 and, 10 years later, can't quite stop?

If you're one of the 16.5% of American women still actively buying cigarettes-never fear. For today's column, I gathered some info on why you should give your "I'm a smoker" shame a shove-and a tip or two on how to kick the habit for good.

Blame Does Not Rest Squarely on Your Shoulders

We all have free will and the smarts to say, "No, thanks," so I know it's not likely that someone tied you down and forced you to smoke your very first cigarette. But do know that you (and probably your partners in crime) may have fallen victim to a sophisticated marketing campaign specifically tailored to your younger self.

Cheryl Healton, DrPH, president and CEO of Legacy (the nonprofit behind the tobacco prevention counter-marketing campaign, truth), says that since tobacco companies can no longer legally target teenagers-they've circled the wagons around the over-18 crowd (which includes marketing at bars and in college towns).

This "bar strategy" also captures the population of women who define themselves as exclusively as "social smokers" (i.e., those who only light up after a few cocktails).

"I was probably 19 when I first smoked-in college and at parties when I was drinking," says Lauren, a healthcare worker. "It was a social thing-kind of like a crutch when I felt nervous. I could go outside, hang out and have something in common with other people."

So, even though it's a fact that some ladies are indeed successful at limiting themselves to just a cigarette (or two) on a Saturday night-let's be frank. Nicotine is still toxic in any quantity, it's one of the most addictive substances on the planet, and social smoking (to the applause of Big Tobacco) often leads to more routine use.

Plus, there's a special bonus just for us girls: Says Azure Thompson, DrPH and Associate Research Scientist in Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, "What we know from the data is that once a woman starts to smoke, she is less likely to quit than a man."

Also add in the fact that many women continue to enjoy active social lives into their 20s and 30s-and you've got even more opportunity to deepen nicotine dependence. "Traditionally, you would see rates of smoking decline in young adults-as women got married and became parents. But [today], emerging adulthood is becoming more extended, and the average age of the first birth is later, so there is less motivation to quit," says Thompson.

Your Opponent Had You at Hello

The first step in kicking a smoking habit for life is taking a realistic look at what you're up against. Nicotine is a powerfully addictive substance that aggressively "hijacks" the human brain, says Healton. "The average person doesn't realize what she is playing with until she tries over and over again and realizes how difficult it is to quit."

According to Dr. Timothy Fong, MD, Director of the UCLA Addiction Medicine Clinic, the addiction process to nicotine starts gradually but once established, takes hold completely. "In the beginning, the [smoker may] say, 'Hey, this makes me seem sort of cool,' or it's a way to keep weight off, or maybe she likes the way nicotine makes her feel or helps her cope with life [stress]."

Fong explains that as the body adapts-smoking no longer becomes something that is just pleasurable or rewarding, it becomes dependence and habit. "You are smoking not to feel good-but smoking to feel normal."

"I knew what I was doing when I bought my first pack," says Lauren. "When there isn't anyone around to bum a cigarette from-and you still want one bad enough to go out and buy a pack-that's the point of no return."

This is War

What this really means, is that if you're serious about slaying the smoking dragon, you'll need to enlist a well-shod army. "The bottom line is that you've got to get professional help-this is not something you can beat on your own," says Fong.

"It's still not in people's mindset that, 'I should go see my doctor about what I can do to stop smoking.' [Smokers often think], 'This is a bad habit I brought on myself, therefore I need to take care of it myself. It would be very weak of me to have someone else tell me how to do this.' Unfortunately, only 7% of people who try to quit are successful on their own."

What is successful, says Fong, is an integrated smoking cessation program (like UCLA's Addiction Medicine Clinic) that provides a mix of medication management-drugs like Chantix (varenicline), Zyban (bupropion), and nicotine replacement via patch or gum-alongside therapy and lifestyle changes like exercise. "What works is having a team supporting you-and learning new ways to cope."

If You Fall, Get Back on Your Horse, Soldier

Healton says the best advice she can give to those trying to quit is that if you experience a relapse, keep trying to quit until you do. "Practice makes perfect. Basically, you are practicing quitting and eventually you will," she explains. "The biggest myth out there is the story of old Uncle Tom who threw his cigarettes out of the pick-up truck and never smoked again. While that does in fact happen, that is probably not the first time he tried to quit. Smokers [who desire to quit] may have [attempted] to quit up to 11 times."

She also advises checking out BecomeAnEX.org-Legacy's free online support resource in partnership with Mayo Clinic. "I highly recommend it-close to 3 million people have been to BecomeAnEX.org and the site has more than 600,000 registered users."

"There is nothing to be ashamed of," says Healton, who is a former smoker herself. "Smoking is no different that any other substance abuse issue-and the big thing we need to do is destigmatize it so people are not off in corners getting ill and staying ill."

And lastly, Lauren (who also found success in finally kicking her nicotine addiction), offers her own parting piece of advice: "Tell women that quitting smoking was the biggest gift I could ever give myself."

This article was originally published on The Daily Muse. For more on taking care of yourself, check out:

Varci Vartanian is a jack (er, Jill) of all trades. After a successful career in healthcare, she traded her lab coat for her current position as chief temper tantrum tamer/play date consultant for her two-year-old. She also enjoys writing short stories, freelance magazine work, and carbohydrates. Follow her on Twitter @varci_vartanian.

Photo of woman smoking courtesy of Shutterstock.