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Is There One Best Way to Quit Smoking?

Despite what you may think, the answer cannot be found in research but in this.

"Cigarette," by Coco.champion,
Source: "Cigarette," by Coco.champion,

When you decide to quit smoking, should you go “cold turkey” or “warm turkey?” In other words, should you quit suddenly or cut down gradually and then quit?

Surprise! There was a recent study on just this question! Half of a group of 697 people cut down gradually for two weeks. The other half quit abruptly after two weeks. Both used nicotine replacement therapy as needed. After one month, 39.2 % of the “warm turkey” quitters remained smoke-free; 49% of the “cold turkey” quitters were smoke-free. After six months, 15.5% of the “graduals” and 22% of the “abrupts” stayed smoke-free.

The headline in my local paper proclaimed, “Going cold turkey is best, study says.” But is it?

Notice that, regardless of method, many people were able to quit successfully in each experimental group. The “cold turkeys” just had a better percentage of success. If my calculator and my math reasoning are correct, after six months about 52 people in the “gradual” group had quit, and about 76 of the cold turkey group had quit. Yes, the “cold turkeys” won, but 52 “warm turkey” quitters is still a substantial number.

The reader comments in the New York Times article about the research study were as interesting as the study itself. Those who wrote in were staunch advocates of the method that had worked for them. Several extolled the power of the “cut-down-and-quit” method. (Disclosure: I, too, quit smoking using this method, as described in my book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.) The “cold turkey” quitters were similarly convinced they could not have succeeded any other way. In other words, in a non-experimental condition, people matched themselves to what they thought would be the best method for them.

So which is the best method—cold turkey or warm turkey? The correct answer is: The one that works for you. No matter the research, the key to quitting smoking, or to any successful habit change, is knowing who you are, why you want to change, and what techniques will work for you, given your unique personality. Research is helpful, but the solution to the quit-smoking dilemma cannot be found primarily in research, but in self-knowledge.

This conclusion jibes nicely with the recent work of Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling book on habits, Better Than Before. Rubin asserts that “We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature.” (For more on finding your nature, see here and here.) For example, Rubin points out that some people tend to be "Moderators" and others to be "Abstainers." In the case of quitting smoking, Moderators might prefer the cut-down-then-quit method and Abstainers might find it easier to quit all at once. If the comments in the Times article are representative, those with self-described "addictive personalities" tend to prefer the cold turkey method. As one reader put it, "the weaning approach means that you negotiate with your addiction every day."

So are you ready to think about how you will stop smoking? Before you choose your method, take these three essential steps:

  • First, identify your strongest motivator(s)—whether “live longer,” “health,” “unwrinkled skin,” or “be around for my family”--that will propel you through the obstacle course of change. Thinking about your motivator will pump up your willpower.
  • Second, get your emotions involved. Why do you care about quitting? Many students in my habit change classes quit because a loved one had died from smoking. I, too, managed to quit only after a beloved relative died because she couldn’t stop smoking. I thought about her every day. Make it real for yourself!
  • Third, make the decision to change. This sounds so obvious. But research shows that people who make a resolution to change are ten times more likely to succeed (Not a misprint! Ten (10) times more likely to change successfully!) than those who want to change but don’t make a specific resolution. Can you make a vow to quit?

Now you are ready to do some soul-searching about your quit method. Research tells us that you don’t need to have self-confidence to change a habit, but you do need to have confidence in your method. To choose the “how” of your change—cold or warm turkey, you might ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have the willpower to self-monitor my cigarette intake for the weeks it will take to cut down and quit? Or would it be easier to “just say no” to cigarettes from the get-go? Which one sounds like you? Are you the gradual quitter or the abrupt abstainer?
  • How could I change my environment to help myself quit?
  • Do I need nicotine replacement therapy?
  • Would it help me if I consulted with my doctor or joined a smoking cessation group? Would group pressure and competition help me change? Or would I dig in my heels and rebel?
  • How will I handle slips? Having a relapse prevention plan can ensure that a slip (one cigarette) will not become a relapse (back to the pack-a-day habit).
"Wild Turkey During Mating Season," by Riki7,
Source: "Wild Turkey During Mating Season," by Riki7,

So, is there one best way to quit smoking? No. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you quit cold turkey or warm turkey, as long as you have confidence that your method will work for you. In the end, accurate self-knowledge could be the key to extinguishing this deadly habit.

© Meg Selig, 2016. All rights reserved.

Want to read more blogs like this one? Try these:

I Quit! How Quitting Smoking Transformed My Entire Life

"Do You Need Self-Esteem to Change a Habit?"

"Is Your Smoking Habit Really Dead? Here's How to Know"


"Going Cold Turkey Is Best, Study Says," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3/20/16.

Selig, M. Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009).

"Our own nature." Rubin, G. Better Than Before (Crown, 2015), p. 257.

Bakalar, N. "Quitting Smoking Cold Turkey May Be Your Best Bet," New York Times.

For more tidbits on habits, health, and happiness, please scroll down to my photo and click to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

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