Quitting smoking

Giving up is hard but worth it

Because, to misappropriate a phrase, there’s no ‘I’ in cancer, but there is a ‘me’ in smokefree (sort of), and July 1st is not only the one-year anniversary of the ban on smoking in public places – it’s also my one-year anniversary as a non-smoker.

Yes, a year ago I stubbed out my last cigarette. It was the fourth time I’d tried giving up, and I was fed up of being part of the 70 percent of smokers who want to quit.

Happily, I’m still off the fags a year later – and the fact that the UK’s now completely smokefree is a big part of the reason why.

15 years of smoking

I started smoking in my late teens, as many do – despite all the heath education messages we were immersed in (I even got an A for a no-smoking project at school). During my gap year, and four years as a student, my smoking steadily got heavier.

I tried to quit twice – but each time I gave in and started again, and by the time I left uni and moved back to the big smoke (pun completely intended) I was a fully paid-up 20-a-day full-strength fag smoker.

My third attempt lasted longer – a couple of years – and was driven largely by external pressures (such as working for a large cancer charity). And during this time I probably put in a lot of the hard psychological slog that’s made my current attempt feel so different.

For example, one of the funny things you notice after giving up is a sort of ‘phantom fag packet’ – you pat your pockets for your cigs and lighter before leaving the house. Over the two years of my penultimate quitting attempt, the phantom fag packet disappeared, I stopped measuring walking distances in terms of numbers of cigarettes, and all-but-erased the self-image I had of myself as a smoker.

And then, after all that hard work, one night (after a few too many beers) I started again, and didn’t stop for another two years.

Fourth time lucky?

But I was determined to give up. So I set myself a target date – 1st July 2007 – the day the new laws on smoking in public places came in, and told everyone about my plans (always a good idea).

I’d tried nicotine patches in the past, and they’d been really helpful (and, according to NHS Direct, using nicotine replacement therapy quadruples your chances of quitting), so I got a few packets of them (partly for the nicotine… and partly to fill that ‘phantom packet’ hole). And on the morning of July 1st, I smoked my last cigarette.

After two days of successfully using patches to keep the inevitable Incredible Sulk quiet, something funny happened.

During previous attempts, I’d avoided pubs like the plague for several months. So I was eager to check out this new ‘smokefree’ malarkey. Three days into my new life as a non-smoker, I joined a couple of colleagues after work for a swift one. It wasn’t so bad. In fact, I didn’t seem to want a cigarette at all. Must be the patches doing their job… so I thought.

When I got home and went to take off my patch…I discovered I hadn’t actually put one on in the first place. It wasn’t lack of willpower or alcohol that had scuppered previous attempts – it was the tempting aroma of cigarette smoke, pushing those buttons in my brain that said ‘go on, just have one, you know you want to’.

And that’s when the true impact of the smoking ban hit me.

Because it is now crystal clear in my mind that the most harmful effect of second-hand smoke, is that it stops people from giving up. Let’s leave aside the fact that it causes diseases in non-smokers (a fact the tobacco industry itself now freely admits). Second-hand smoke is the trigger that stops so many of those 70 per cent of smokers who don’t want to smoke, from quitting.

Record numbers quit

And you can see this in today’s figures. Over the last 12 months, England has witnessed the biggest rate of smoking cessation in its history. According to Professor Robert West, our Director of Tobacco Studies, if this trend continues it will prevent 40,000 people from dying from smoking-related disease over the next ten years.

40,000 people. This probably sounds corny – and perhaps slightly smug – but it feels much nicer being part of that stat (touch wood), than part of the 70 per cent who want to quit but – for whatever reason – don’t.

The smoking ban was trumpeted by our CEO, Harpal Kumar as a law that would “bring about the most significant public health improvements the country has seen in decades” – and working alongside the teams here that campaigned so hard to achieve this has been hugely inspiring.

But, just as the Government has to be vigilant to keep smoking rates in decline, I know I’ve only been a non-smoker for a year, and I’m certainly not out of the woods.

All that said, for me, 1st July is a personal milestone as well as a national one.

Happy anniversary, smoking ban.