Breaking the Nicotine Addiction

Health, Home & Family
on June 11, 2006

Until five years ago, Rhonda Rosburg was a heavy smokera habit she started as a teenager but one that left her literally breathless at 30,000 feet during an airplane flight home in 1998. As her husband watched helplessly, she began gasping for air and later landed in the emergency room in Rochester, Minn.

Although the episode was scary enough to make her husband stop smoking, Rosburg resumed her pack-a-day habit within months. Only when she started panting while climbing stairs at age 42 did she finally get the message. “I didn’t want to be 80 years old with an oxygen tank,” says Rosburg, who overcame her nicotine addiction in 2001.

Almost every longtime smoker has attempted to kick the habit. But, in their initial enthusiasm, they discover quickly that changing behavior is only part of a complex transformation that also requires overcoming an addiction to nicotine. When inhaled by smoking tobacco products, this potent chemical sends the body conflicting signals, including physical and mood-altering effects in the brain that are temporarily pleasing. It is this satisfying “rush” that reinforces further tobacco use, says Dr. J. Taylor Hays of the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Center in Rochester.

“Nicotine in tobacco smoke is delivered to the brain faster than intravenous medications,” Hays says. “It’s powerfully addictive.”

To confront her addiction, Rosburg entered a residential treatment program at the Mayo Clinic, where she learned to change her smoking behaviors. She used nicotine-replacement products to gradually offset nicotine cravings as her body went through withdrawal. Rosburg took her last cigarette puff on June 8, 2001, and today at 47, she loathes cigarettes and has even enjoyed a health bonus: “I’ve lost 12 pounds because my lungs can finally handle jogging and running,” she says.

Joel Spitzer, a smoking prevention and cessation consultant based in Evanston, Ill., delivers a no-nonsense message to “smoke-a-holics”: Quit cold turkey! He says it’s the easiest and most effective way to stop smoking for good.

“It’s an addiction, like a recovering alcoholic taking a sip of a drink and suffering a relapse,” says Spitzer, author of the online guide Never Take Another Puff (at “One drag on a cigarette can undo everything.”

Spitzer was a child when he convinced his mother to stop smoking and, for three decades, has led clinics and courses urging smokers never to take another puff. “You have a great chance of success if you recognize smoking as a drug addiction and not as just a bad habit,” he says.

Here are 10 strategies for breaking the nicotine addiction.

Set a date. Mark your calendar with an “I quit!” day, and get rid of all cigarettes, ashtrays, lighters and other items related to smoking.

Be prepared. Expect to experience withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, headaches, hunger, anxiety and a lack of focus. Understand that these symptoms, while uncomfortable, are only temporary.

Trigger points. Recognize daily routines that trigger smoking, such as coffee breaks or watching television, and avoid or adapt them to discourage old behaviors.

Cut down on caffeine. Caffeine can make you feel edgy. Drink more water and juice to reduce cravings.

Exercise can help. Take a brisk walk or engage in another physical activity.

Practice deep breathing. It can help you relax and cope until cravings pass. Visualize your lungs filling with fresh, clean air.

Seek support. Join a support group such as Nicotine Anonymous (, or attend a stop-smoking class.

Nicotine-replacement therapy. Over-the-counter products such as nicotine patches, gum and lozenges can help ease discomfort during withdrawal. Consult your physician about prescribed alternatives.

Positive reinforcement. Remind yourself of the health, social and financial benefits of not smoking.

Don’t give up. If you try to quit and relapse, determine what went wrong and try again. Quitting smoking is a process. More than 46 million Americans have done it successfully, and you can, too.

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