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How to participate in the Great American Smokeout

Most adult smokers want to quit. Are you one of them? 

If so, it’s the Great American Smokeout, a day dedicated to giving up cigarettes for good. After all, a smoke-free life is a healthier life. Even if you’ve tried quitting smoking before, you can make another attempt.

“Now is always the right time to try again,” says behavioral psychologist Bryan Heckman, Ph.D., associate professor and founding director of the Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health at Meharry Medical College.

In fact, this year, in the face of the COVID pandemic, quitting smoking could be one of the best things you do to improve your health.

RELATED: Does smoking increase your risk for COVID-19?

What is the Great American Smokeout?

Every year on the third Thursday of November, the American Cancer Society (ACS) holds the Great American Smokeout to encourage and support people in the common goal of kicking the habit. It’s a tradition that’s helped smokers quit for more than 40 years.

What is now the Great American Smokeout started in 1970 in Randolph, Massachusetts, when people gave up smoking for a day and donated the costs of their cigarettes to a local high school scholarship fund.

 A few years later, nearly 1 million people in California quit smoking on Nov. 18, 1976, in what’s generally considered the first Great American Smokeout, with the encouragement of the California Division of the American Cancer Society. The next year, it became a nationwide event.

Today, the Smokeout is an annual event—one that inspires many people.

 “These types of events can spark an unplanned quit attempt or serve as a call to action for those who had been thinking about quitting,” Heckman notes. “The social element is also important to consider as these events may promote group quit attempts or other forms of social support.”

Smoking statistics 

When you smoke cigarettes, your heart disease and your cancer risk both increase. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn that smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop or die from lung cancer than non-smokers.

 Smoking is the largest preventable cause of disease and death in the world, according to the American Cancer Society (cancer.org). In fact, smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths, or 1 in 5 deaths, every year. And another 16 million people in the U.S. live with a disease associated with smoking.

 But there is some good news. Smoking rates have declined in recent years, as most people know the dangers of smoking and really want to quit. But despite the benefits of quitting, it’s hard to give up nicotine, as you may know, if you’ve tried unsuccessfully to quit before. You’re not alone. According to a 2017 report from the CDC, half of all smokers in the United States tried to quit in 2015. But only about 1 in 10 was successful.

 In fact, the average number of quit attempts that a smoker makes before finally quitting for good ranges from 8 to 12, with some research suggesting that it might take as many as 30 attempts for some people.

How to participate in the Great American Smokeout 

You don’t have to register in advance to participate in the Great American Smokeout. You just have to make it your first tobacco-free day.

 But it definitely helps to start thinking about it in advance.

 “If you are thinking about quitting smoking, I would highly recommend making an appointment with your doctor to help develop a plan that works best for you,” says Rachael Hiday, Pharm.D., a clinical pharmacist with Indiana University Health. Your healthcare provider will explain different methods, help you create a schedule to stop smoking and may recommend either over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapy—like Nicorette—or a prescription to help you in the process. 

Do you have a smoking cessation plan? 

Deciding you want to quit smoking is a very important step—perhaps the most important one. But you do have to follow through. That’s why having a plan is imperative.

These steps may help you:

Choose a quit date. As the American Cancer Society likes to remind people, start with Day One. Pick a date and make that your quit date. If the third Thursday in November doesn’t work for you, pick another date that does work.

List your reasons for not smoking. Having a list can encourage you when your resolve might falter. Your list might include reasons like saving money, improving your health, setting a good example for others, and improving your appearance and smelling better.

Plan for how to address cravings. Don’t wait until the urge to smoke hits you—which it will—to come up with a strategy for thwarting the craving. Your strategy may include drinking a glass of water or chomping on carrot or celery sticks when the urge hits, says pulmonologist Norman Edelman, MD, professor of internal medicine and core member of the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University. Or you could take a walk or do deep breathing exercises. Distract yourself and keep yourself busy to avoid thoughts about smoking. 

Enlist the support of your loved ones. This isn’t an easy task, so you need to be surrounded by people who will support you and not sabotage your efforts to quit. They can help you ward off cravings and avoid triggers that might weaken your resolve. Also, ask anyone in your circle who still smokes to not smoke around you.

Throw the cigarettes away. Toss the cigarettes, lighters, and ashtrays in the garbage, which should eliminate one big barrier to quitting.

If you don’t succeed, try, try again. It may take you seven, eight, or nine attempts to quit once and for all. And for some people, it may take even more tries. But don’t let a few failed efforts deter you from trying again. “It’s like riding a horse,” Dr. Edelman says. “If you fall off, you have to be encouraged to get right back on again.” 

Consider trying a medication to help 

One element of your plan to stop smoking might be a smoking-cessation medication (SCM) or nicotine replacement product to help you.

In fact, some research suggests that smoking-cessation medications or aids may enhance your chances of success. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that switching to a different smoking-cessation medication after a failed quit attempt may give you a better chance of success the next time. Moreover, the literature shows that prescription medications such as Chantix or Zyban in combination with nicotine replacement products are superior to a single therapy to help quit smoking. 

 Your options for nicotine replacement products that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include:

  • Transdermal nicotine patch
  • Nicotine gum
  • Nicotine inhaler
  • Nicotine lozenges
  • Nicotine nasal spray

 The FDA also has approved two prescription medications without nicotine to help smokers with smoking cessation:  

RELATED: How to get free Chantix 

It’s especially important to discuss these options with your physician in advance if you plan to use any of them to help you. The patch is perhaps the most popular tobacco cessation aid, but your preference and needs may vary. Or you may prefer a medication over a nicotine replacement product. Whatever you choose, your healthcare provider can help!