On July 20, Jane E. Brody, in her New York Times column on Personal Health, gave a painful and moving account of her husband’s intractable addiction to cigarettes despite numerous efforts to quit. Although he finally succeeded at the age of 61, his 50 years of smoking eventually took their toll in the form of a decade of suffering from emphysema and finally death from lung cancer. He repeatedly told his sons, “Learn from my mistake – if you never start, you’ll never have to quit.” Fortunately, they took his advice.
You may think it’s too late for you to benefit from his hard-won wisdom. For some smokers, like Brody’s husband, it’s already too late after just a handful of cigarettes. But if you are a very light smoker or smoke only occasionally – say in a bar on Friday nights – you may be fortunate enough to be minimally addicted. Many such smokers are young and female. Sound like you? If so, the right time to stop smoking would be right now – before greater or more prolonged exposure leads to greater dependence and increases exponentially the difficulty of quitting.
More good news: You are unlikely to gain weight when you quit because your exposure to the weight suppressing effects of nicotine thus far has been minimal. My colleagues and I have repeatedly compared the weight of nonsmoking women college students with that of their smoking counterparts, most of whom are fairly light smokers, and found no difference. If you don’t want to gain weight when you quit, the right time to stop smoking would be right now.
One other thing we’ve learned is that many experimenters and occasional smokers do not identify themselves as smokers. If you’re in that category, or if you know someone who is, don’t kid yourself, and don’t tune out quit-smoking messages because you think they don’t apply to you. Every time you light up a cigarette, you’re playing with fire. Even if you only smoke once a month, the right time to stop smoking would be right now.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.