Cigarette smokers who want to kick the nicotine habit agree that quitting cold turkey is easier said than done. Fortunately, there are ways to cut down smoking cigarettes gradually.
This article takes a look at six ways you can cut down smoking cigarettes gradually until you quit for good. We’ve compiled information from a number of experts from anti-smoking organizations, including the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society.
We’ve also gathered expert input from a public health analyst with the Centers for Disease Control’s Office on Smoking and Health, as well as a doctor who is a research investigator with the Truth Initiative, a public health organization dedicated to making tobacco use a thing of the past.
1. Plan a Quit Date Before Cutting Back on Cigarettes
It’s important to plan a quit date and stick to it because having an actual date to kick the nicotine habit will put you in the right mindset.
“Knowing that date allows you to plan when you’re going to cut down,” said Bill Blatt, National Director of Tobacco Programs at the American Lung Association. “For instance, if you plan a quit date of June 1, you’ll know you’ll be cutting your cigarette intake before June 1.”
More than half of cigarette smokers make a quit attempt each year, according to Stephen Babb, a Public Health Analyst with the Centers for Disease Control’s Office on Smoking and Health.
“Most smokers try to quit multiple times before succeeding – in fact, some smokers may try to quit 30 or more times before they succeed,” Babb said. “However, quitting is possible. Millions of Americans have quit smoking successfully. The important thing is to keep trying until you succeed.”
2. Cut Your Cigarette Intake in Half
Once you’ve planned a quit date, start cutting your cigarette intake in half. It doesn’t matter how much you smoke, whether it’s a pack a day or 10 cigarettes a day. All that matters is you consume 50 percent less nicotine than you did before.
“If you’re smoking 20 cigarettes a day, make a commitment to smoke 10 a day,” Blatt advised. “That will help you quit entirely, eventually smoking from 10 to zero.”
The following advice can help you stick to the commitment of cutting down smoking cigarettes gradually. You will still notice the urge to smoke as much as you did before, but there is good news.
“The urge to smoke passes, whether you have a cigarette or not,” Blatt said. “Even though you feel a really bad craving, if you can hang on for three to five minutes, that craving will go away.”
3. Know the Symptoms of Nicotine Withdrawal and Arm Yourself with Ways to Cope
When you cut down smoking cigarettes gradually, you will experience symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Knowing what to expect, and arming yourself ahead of time with ways to cope with these symptoms, can help you with overall success.
The National Cancer Institute offers the following advice:
Irritability, Frustration, and Anger: If you’re suffering from these symptoms, do things to help yourself relax, like taking a walk, getting a massage, or soaking in a hot bath. It also helps to reduce your caffeine by limiting or avoiding drinks like tea, soda or coffee.
Depression: It’s perfectly normal to experience sadness when you cut down nicotine, and some have the intense urge to smoke when they feel depressed. You can help lift your mood by calling a friend, going to a movie, or engaging in physical activity. If your depression lasts for more than a month, talk to your doctor about prescription medications that can help.
Anxiety: Feelings of agitation are normal when you start cutting down smoking gradually. Engaging in physical activity can help offset this emotion. Meditation can also help, as well as breathing deeply through your nose and out your mouth for at least 10 seconds.
Stress: Once you cut down smoking gradually, you may become acutely aware of stress. Relaxation techniques can help, such as yoga. You can also create a peaceful alone time for yourself, like setting aside an hour in which you can get away from other people and your usual environment.
For more specific concrete tips, the National Cancer Institute offers tips online: How to Handle Withdrawal Symptoms.
4. Cope with Cravings After Cutting Cigarette Intake with the “Four D’s”
Delay the Urge
The American Lung Association suggests incorporating the “Four D’s” to help you cope with triggers to smoke cigarettes. The first D is to “delay the urge” – meaning to hang on for three to five minutes, which is the typical time it takes for the urge to pass. During those few minutes, the next steps can help you get through it.
Inhaling and exhaling deeply can help during the three to five minutes that it takes the smoking urge to pass.
“You may be feeling stress if you’re feeling an urge to smoke,” Blatt said. “Taking a deep breath is a way of calming yourself down. It helps you mentally, and again, it’s part of giving you time to occupy yourself to get through those three to five minutes.”
Deep breathing can also remind you that you’re quitting for your health.
“It’s a way to remind yourself that you’re going to breathe better when you quit smoking,” Blatt said. “You think about your lungs and the ability to breathe in and out. It’s a reminder of why you’re doing this.”
Drinking water during those urges to smoke can work as a distraction because you can’t smoke and drink water at the same time.
“If you smoke a pack a day, that’s about 200 puffs a day, and you’re doing hand-to-mouth 200 times a day, 1,400 times a week,” Blatt said. “These puffs are an ingrained routine. You’ll break it, but you’ll need to break it gradually by doing something else hand-to-mouth.”
Do Something Else
When you feel the urge to consume nicotine, do anything else but pick up a cigarette. This can include the following activities that make it impossible for you to smoke:
- Swimming laps in the pool
- Playing tennis
- Going to the movies
It is important to understand that only complete cessation brings meaningful health benefits, Babb noted. “Reducing cigarette consumption is only beneficial if it leads to complete cessation – in other words, as a means to an end, not an end in itself.”
5. Educate Yourself on Smoking Cessation Aides
Cigarette smokers who want to cut down gradually before quitting altogether can obtain quite a bit of support through smoking cessation resources.
Unfortunately, most cigarette smokers don’t use cessation aids, which can double or triple the chances of kicking the habit on your quit attempt, said J. Lee Westmaas, Strategic Director of Tobacco Research at the American Cancer Society.
“Resources would be the same for anyone trying to quit smoking, regardless of whether they want to cut back gradually versus setting a quit date and trying to quit all at once,” Westmaas said.
The following resources can be helpful as you cut down smoking cigarettes gradually:
Tap into Evidence-Based Cessation Resources
These include individual, group, or telephone counseling. For instance, 1-800-QUIT-NOW connects you with your state quit-line. The National Cancer Institute website contains extensive practical advice on quitting.
The National Cancer Institute’s cessation mobile text messaging service at SmokefreeTXT provides 24/7 encouragement, advice, and tips to help smokers quit smoking.
Ask Your Doctor About FDA-Approved Cessation Medications
Try nicotine patches, nicotine gum, nicotine lozenges, nicotine nasal spray, nicotine inhalers, bupropion hydrochloride (Zyban®) and varenicline (Chantix®). The gum, patch, and lozenge are all over-the-counter while the rest are prescription.
Tap into Online Resources
Visit CDC’s Tips From Former Smokers, which motivates adult smokers to quit through personal testimonials from real people who are living with serious smoking-related diseases.
Find new ways to cope with withdrawal symptoms such as exercise, meditation, or connecting with others in the EX Community.
6. Know That Withdrawal Symptoms are Temporary and Are a Sign of Recovery
If a cigarette smoker is cutting back but hasn’t quit completely, they shouldn’t have the same degree of withdrawal symptoms as someone who just went completely tobacco-free, Blatt said.
“Withdrawal symptoms are temporary and they’re a sign of recovery – the body is adjusting to not having nicotine and that’s an important part of becoming smoke-free,” Blatt noted.
Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Trouble with sleeping
- Feeling more hungry
- Weight gain
- Being more tired than usual
- Mental fog
“They may have some trouble concentrating at the moment but it won’t last too long and they’ll feel more like their normal self soon,” Blatt said.
Quitting cigarette smoking is the single most important step a person can take to enhance the length and quality of their life.
“So it’s important to keep that goal top of mind, even if that means cutting yourself some slack on other things for the moment,” Blatt said.
Overcoming withdrawal symptoms and urges to smoke cigarettes are typically the toughest challenges, Babb added.
“The first weeks after one’s quit day are the most difficult, and most smokers who relapse do so during this period,” Babb said. “Smokers’ chances of quitting for good improve the longer they stay quit.”
Cutting Down Smoking Gradually vs. Quitting Cold Turkey
Cigarette smokers can try to quit smoking either abruptly – “cold turkey” – or by cutting down gradually on their cigarette consumption, Babb noted.
“Both methods are commonly used,” Babb said. “While either approach can work, recent research suggests that smokers who make an abrupt quit attempt are more likely to be successful than smokers who gradually reduce their cigarette consumption.”
Of course, it depends on how long it took them to gradually quit, Westmaas said.
“If it takes 10 years, we would probably have preferred that their reduction period was much shorter, or that they tried quitting all at once,” Westmaas said. “The good news is that they have quit, however.”
The most important thing is to stop using tobacco entirely – and the sooner the better, said Amanda L. Graham, Ph.D., a Research Investigator in the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Truth Initiative.
“There is no safe level of smoking,” Dr. Graham said. “Reducing smoking gradually can be an effective method for quitting, as long as it leads to completely stopping smoking cigarettes or cigars.”
It may take up to 30 attempts or more before someone is finally able to quit smoking cigarettes, Westmaas noted.
“But millions of smokers do eventually quit – hence our current national prevalence of smoking of 15 percent,” Westmaas said. “The key is to learn from prior quit attempts, and plan out how to deal with situations that lead one to crave cigarettes.”
Each cigarette smoker will need to experiment and try quitting in a way they feel works best for them in order to find the one that works, Dr. Graham added.
“Most smokers take multiple times to quit and try different methods before finding a quitting approach that works for them,” Dr. Graham said. “Don’t give up. Each smoker is going to have his or her own journey.”
While quitting cigarettes is challenging, it is possible, and people quit smoking successfully all the time, Babb said.
“In fact, today there are more former smokers than current smokers,” Babb noted.
The Japanese proverb, fall down seven times, and get up eight, is important for cigarette smokers to consider, Dr. Graham said.
“Each time a smoker tries to quit, they learn valuable things about their smoking habit and what works and doesn’t work for quitting,” Dr. Graham said. “The key is to take a step back, reflect on what you learned during this time trying to quit, and incorporate that into a plan for the next time.”
Above all, quitting is the single most important step that cigarette smokers can take to improve their health.
“It is never too late to quit – quitting smoking has health benefits at any age,” Babb said. “These benefits begin immediately and grow over time. By quitting smoking, you also protect your family members from secondhand smoke, reduce the chances that your children will become smokers, and save money.”
“However, to fully realize these benefits, you have to quit smoking completely,” Babb said.
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