Cold turkey

Evidence suggests that supported quit attempts (e.g. using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), having group or individual counselling) are more successful than unaided attempts. However not everyone wants to use medicine such as NRT, or see a counsellor and many smokers quit unaided.

Unaided quitting is known as going ‘cold turkey’. Smokers who want to quit this way should be advised to make a plan. Planning when they will quit and what they will do when cravings strike means they are more likely to succeed. The aim is to change the habits associated with smoking. This means thinking about things such as when and where someone smokes. Planning includes:

  • setting a quit date
  • throwing away smoking gear (e.g. cigarettes, ashtrays, lighters)
  • changing routines linked with smoking (e.g. instead of smoking in a work break go for a walk)
  • avoiding situations where they usually smoke
  • starting new activities (e.g. exercise) to replace smoking.

The case study in Box 1 provides an example of how someone was able to quit using this method. Support from family and friends was an important part of this process.

Box 1: Quitting Cold Turkey

As a crisis support worker for the Kamunga Aboriginal Health Service working with young homeless people and those in other critical situations, Margie Jackson could have plenty of excuses for continuing to smoke. But after smoking 70-plus cigarettes a day for 26 years, Margie’s body was telling her that it was time to give up.

Margie first took up smoking after the birth of her daughter as a way of coping with postnatal depression. She thought that smoking would be a better way of dealing with the depression than taking medication. Over the years, Margie made many a new year’s resolution to quit smoking but they were always short lived. Wednesday, the 18th February 2004, though was different. After suffering from chest infection every winter, Margie finally decided to quit.

Margie felt the key to success in this quitting attempt was both her strong commitment to doing so, and a sense that the time had come to face up to the damage that smoking was doing both to her health and to her wallet. She was staggered to find that she had smoked her way through $6000 worth of cigarettes every year. But it was watching her mother die of smoking-related illness that finally forced Margie to realise the damage that smoking could do.

After briefly trying nicotine patches and finding that they did not suit her, Margie was able to quit ‘cold turkey’. Support from friends, family and work colleagues, especially other smokers, were an important part of the quitting process. Her partner at the time, out of consideration for Margie, took to smoking outside the house; he soon followed her lead and gave up himself. This positive feedback gave her both a sense of pride in what she was doing and her self esteem a real boost.

Margie says she cannot remember suffering from bad nicotine cravings; instead, she focused on the positives she was experiencing from being smoke-free. She found new joy in her favourite foods and perfumes once her sense of smell and taste quickly recovered. Her skin also felt smoother and her clothes no longer had the odour of tobacco smoke. While Margie did gain a bit of weight, she has since been able to lose most of it. This has been further helped by her increased fitness because of no longer suffering from regular bouts of bronchitis.

Margie feels she encourages other smokers around her to quit – not through giving them lecture but through leading by example. She likes to share her experience with friends and family in the hope that it will inspire them to quit too. Margie is to be congratulated on her success and we would like to thank her for sharing her story with us.

Material adapted from:

Usually when someone quits using the cold turkey method they quit all at once. Evidence shows this is more successful than tapering (cutting down), even if someone chooses to quit using support from pharmacology or a health professional. However not everyone is ready to quit smoking. For anyone not quite ready to quit, but who is starting to think about the benefits of not smoking, cutting down is a good way for people to get more control over their smoking and start to change their smoking habit. Cutting down can give people the confidence to quit. More tips on how to cut down are given in Box 2.

Box 2: How to cut down on the smokes

To get any health benefits it is necessary to stop smoking completely, but some people aren’t ready to do that. They may feel nervous about quitting or feel put off because they have been unsuccessful at quitting in the past. But there are ways to help people get more confident and feel more in control of their smoking. They can practise not smoking in every-day situations where they would normally smoke, as well as cutting down in other ways. By doing this they are taking small steps towards quitting for good. Some suggestions to cut down are:

  • cut down gradually, for example smoke one less each day, butt out when it is only half finished, or make the mornings/evenings a smoke-free zone
  • replace cigarettes with carrot sticks, cassava sticks or fruit, chew on sugar-free gum or brush your teeth instead
  • do something else instead, for example knitting, swimming or gardening, go for a swim, walk or run, or take a shower
  • reward yourself for cutting down.

Material adapted from:

Further reading