Thinking about your smoking?

Amanda Baker Psychologist University Newcastle SMART Recovery
Professor Amanda Baker
Clinical Psychologist and proud member of the SMART Recovery Global and Australian Research Advisory Committee

Thinking about your smoking?

I’m thinking about mine, 32 years after giving up!

It’s a weird world at the moment. Covid has brought with it many changes, including changes in availability and place of work, how we socialise and indeed, how we see our own futures and that of our children. I find myself reflecting on lots of everyday things – things we took for granted and how life has changed. How family and friends no longer with us never saw the covid pandemic and what they would make of it.

So, why am I thinking about my smoking 32 years down the track, when there is so much else to reflect on at the moment? It took me by surprise, given all the reverie I’d been engaging in about how life used to be, pre-covid. Yesterday, undergoing a routine medical check, the doctor asked me “Do you smoke?” I replied “No” and “Non-smoker” was duly entered on my file. That was it – 5 seconds and the mention of smoking was over. It was great that the doctor asked me about my smoking status. Too often, smoking is not asked about and the opportunity to have a conversation about it is lost. So well done, doc!!!

What got me thinking though was the black and white term “Non-smoker”. My journey to being called a “Non-smoker” has been colourful and winding and, back in the day, it required a huge effort on my part to eventually give up smoking. I come from a family of smokers, previous generations died young from diseases associated with smoking. My parents were heavy smokers and didn’t get to meet my kids. I experimented with smoking in primary school and began buying my own packs when I entered high school. By the time I finally gave up, I was smoking 30 cigarettes a day or more.

What motivated me to finally give up? I’d tried lots of times to cut down or stop. It was when my uncle had both his legs amputated, like his father (my grand father), due to peripheral vascular disease caused by smoking, I made the final change attempt. Seeing my uncle lying on a bed without his legs, with his smokes beside him, was the final straw for me. I had a flight booked to the UK and used that as smoke-free time (although you could still smoke on planes then!) and bought some NRT gum. Smoking had been a big part of my life and it wasn’t easy but I’d had enough. Occasionally I’ve had a cigarette or two, catching up with friends who still smoke. However, I haven’t had a cigarette now for many years. Just not interested.

Do I like cigarettes? Oh yes indeed! It’s a reminder of my youth and smoking a cigarette can be very satisfying – the mild stimulation is pleasurable. Would I return to smoking? Definitely not. I value my legs! Also, the addiction, feeling like you can’t sit through a meeting or a movie without nipping out for a cigarette is so annoying. I also don’t want to model smoking to my kids! Not smoking is going to be one of the greatest gifts I ever give them. There are lots of other reasons, like expense, smell, discoloured teeth, feeling like a social outcast … and the list goes on. I must say the relief I feel in not being addicted anymore, the ability to sit and ‘enjoy life without a cigarette’ (like they used to say in the old adverts) is wonderful.

So why am I telling SMART Recovery participants this? For a few very important reasons. Firstly, smoking matters. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves. You’ve probably noticed that people who use alcohol and other drugs have really high rates of smoking. As a clinical psychologist who has worked in drug and alcohol settings, I’ve really noticed it! Like me, they enjoy it on the one hand but most want to give up sometime. Sadly, they are far more likely to die from smoking related illnesses like cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancer than as a result of their substance use. Smoking interventions aren’t often offered in drug and alcohol settings and people who use alcohol and other drugs often end up smoking for longer. They can have lower rates of quitting and often need longer term help with addressing their smoking. So, if like me you’ve previously tried to cut down or quit, think about whether the strategies you use in SMART Recovery to reduce your other drug use could be used to reduce or stop tobacco use. The same four pillars of SMART Recovery, building motivation, coping with urges, problem solving and lifestyle balance, can be used to help with your tobacco goals. SMART Recovery can help over an extended period of time too, so if you need extra support to cut down or quit, SMART Recovery will be there for you. Usually, smoking medication like Champix or NRT is also recommended to help with cravings.

Secondly, three is not a crowd! Research has shown that quitting smoking does not worsen other alcohol and other drug use and may benefit mental health. As a clinical psychologist I have counselled many people who smoke, use alcohol and other drugs and who experience mental illness. Rather than addressing one at a time, many people can successfully work on all three at the same time.

Thirdly and maybe most importantly, SMART Recovery recognises that change is a process. If, like me, your smoking journey is a winding road, that’s OK. SMART Recovery can support you along the way.

What next? Consider what you value, find meaningful or important. (For me, its enjoying time with my family and staying healthy as long as I can). How does tobacco smoking fit in with those things? What concerns you the most? What’s the next step?

Start making healthy changes in a way that works for you