We know the facts: Smoking and tobacco use are huge risk factors for lung cancer. And the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths. The ACS estimates that 131,880 United States residents will die from it this year.
Despite those facts, about 14% of U.S. adults still smoke cigarettes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. That figure might include your dad, a close friend, or your partner.
Meanwhile, vaping, or e-cigarettes, has become slightly less popular among teens, according to CDC surveys. Still, in 2020, about 1 in every 5 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the last 30 days.
Many believe vaping has fewer health risks than smoking regular cigarettes. But these devices contain tiny particles of metal. They go into your lungs every time you inhale inhale. And because there aren’t any long-term studies of vaping, we don’t yet know the health effects, explains Jennifer Peregoy, a UVA Cancer Center certified tobacco treatment specialist.
If you love someone who smokes, these facts are really scary. How can you help them quit smoking?
Supporting a Smoker
In her role, Peregoy helps cancer patients with counseling, treatments, and tactics to quit nicotine. And she understands how hard it is — she smoked for 20 years, and it took her 10 years to quit.
Peregoy says this is pretty typical. Most people can’t quit smoking on the first try, or even the fifth. “It’s important to recognize that smoking is an addiction,” she says. “It’s easy for someone who’s never smoked to say, ‘Can’t you just put them down and walk away?’ The reality is, if they could, they probably would have. Most people, at some point in their life, want to quit.”
Addressing Tobacco Addiction: What to Say Instead
Peregoy suggests keeping the discussion positive. Avoid statements like, “Your cigarettes stink” or, “You’re giving yourself lung cancer.” Instead, make “I” statements, like:
- “When you smoke, I feel…”
- “It affects me because…”
Peregoy also suggests keeping it personal for the smoker. For example, if they already have high blood pressure, remind them that smoking can make it worse. “Make it specific to that person, and do so in a non-accusatory way,” she says. For example: “I understand that when you smoke, your blood pressure is higher. That worries me because heart disease runs in our family.”
Focus on small victories. If your loved one goes five hours without using tobacco, congratulate them. Encourage them to try for six hours next time.
Why Is Smoking Addictive?
Cigarettes, vaping, and other nicotine products are addictive because your brain develops nicotine receptors, Peregoy explains. When nicotine binds to the receptors, they release dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine — hormones that make you feel relaxed and happy. The more you smoke, the more receptors you develop.
Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms
Consequently, when you go longer than normal without smoking, nicotine withdrawal symptoms set in. According to the CDC, these include:
- Craving smoking
- Feeling grumpy and restless
- Struggling to concentrate
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling hungrier or gaining weight
- Feeling anxious, sad, or depressed
The Best Ways to Quit Smoking
Some people claim smoking helps relieve stress. But a large part of that, Peregoy points out, is the “break” part of “smoke break” — the act of stepping away for a minute and, often, going outside.
Help your loved one find other ways to take a break, such as going outside and taking several deep breaths. They can also try other tactics to raise their dopamine levels, like:
- Drinking water
- Getting a good night’s sleep
- Eating or drinking products with cinnamon
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can help someone get out of the smoking habit with fewer physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. This includes:
NRT is available with and without a prescription. Insurance and medication discount cards may help with the cost if you have a prescription.
Finally, the person’s healthcare provider can also prescribe medications that help reduce cravings and increase their chances of success.
Resources: Help A Smoker Get Counseling and NRT
Many insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, cover some smoking cessation counseling and FDA-approved NRT and prescription medication, according to the American Lung Association.
Not sure if something is FDA-approved? Search the FDA database.
You can also share these resources with your loved one:
- Smokefree.gov, which includes a tool to make a personalized quit plan and an app for the first smoke-free day
- 1.800.QUIT.NOW (800.784.8669), for free counseling. This number directs you to counselors in your state. In Virginia, counseling is available in English and Spanish and for people who are hearing-impaired.
Get Screened for Lung Cancer
Your loved one may qualify for lung cancer screening. This may be free, depending on insurance coverage.
Lung Cancer Screening
Whether your loved one quits or not, you can share information with them about lung cancer screening. This helps identify lung cancer at an earlier stage, when it’s easier to treat and the survival rate is still high. The screening is open to people who:
- Have no current cancer symptoms
- Are 50-80 years old
- Smoked an average of at least one pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years
- Currently smoke or quit within the last 15 years