How Ex-Smokers Can Help Someone Quit

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 18, 2018

Now that you've quit smoking, you have a chance to pay it forward and help out someone who wants to kick the habit.

You know that smoking isn’t good for your health or the good health of those around you. But you also know that quitting, and staying quit, isn’t easy.

You’ve probably heard a lot of advice. A favorite bit of wisdom from folks who never smoked: “Just throw them away.” If only it were that easy.

The best advice usually about comes from people who have been there, done that. So here’s some inspiration as you help your friends or relatives put smoking in their past.  

Assure Them That There’s No Such Thing as Failure

Let your friend know that they may feel frustrated if it takes them several tries to stop smoking. A lot of people go through that. For many smokers, it can take anywhere from eight, 10, or even more attempts to quit for good.

Lisa Fiorello thought smoking was the best thing ever. “I looked at cigarettes as my little friends and I loved them,” says Fiorello, a social worker in her 40s who started smoking when she was 21 years old.

In her mid-30s, Fiorello started to get a lot of colds that turned into a nagging cough. The diagnosis: bronchitis.

Her doctors told her to quit smoking since she was also starting to develop early signs of emphysema, a chronic lung condition. She tried to quit many times, but would fall back into her old habits within weeks or months.

Instead of looking at those lapses as failures, Fiorello looked at quitting as a process. “The best advice I ever received was from a doctor who said there’s no such thing as failure if I tried again,” Fiorello says.

She kept trying and has been smoke-free for years.

“Quitting smoking is like riding a bike because there is a lot to learn before you finally get it right,” says  Erik Augustson, PhD, a behavioral scientist who leads the National Cancer Institute’s program.

Remind Them That the Addiction Is Real

If your relative or friend talks about quitting as just a matter of willpower, give them a reality check.

The addiction to cigarettes comes from nicotine. Nicotine raises levels of a brain chemical called dopamine that’s linked to the pleasure and reward centers of the brain.  For a lot of tobacco users, there are actual brain changes that happen due to nicotine exposure and result in addiction.

Roger Tayfel always told his two young children about the dangers of drugs. But when his kids would call him an addict because of his cigarette habit, he didn’t buy it.

“I remember telling them they didn’t know what they were talking about,” says Tayfel, an engineer in his 40s who started smoking when he was 15 years old.

The addiction message hit home when he ran out of a fresh pack of smokes late at night and went sneaking in the trash for a long cigarette butt that he could potentially light up.

Tayfel found a butt, lit it, and “felt ashamed,” he says. “My kids were right. I was an addict.”

It was then he decided to quit.

“Realizing I was an addict and I needed help, helped me quit,” he says. “Maybe it will help someone else.”

Encourage Them to Join a Support Group

John Polito never thought of himself as an addict either.  He was a successful lawyer who smoked cigarettes since age 15.

“I must have quit a thousand times and I would go right back to it,” Polito says.

He even once decided he was going to be a smoker for life. A few months later, he found a web-based support group filled with people trying to quit smoking.

“I was overwhelmed by the number of people who were helping each other and eventually helping me,” Polito says. Now in his 60s and smoke-free for more than 15 years, Polito works as a nicotine cessation educator. He even founded a free online quit smoking education and support group.

Hold Them Accountable

Now that you’re smoke-free, try to remind your friend who wants to quit that if they light up, they need to stop ASAP.

Nancy Salisbury started smoking at age 15, and started quitting at about age 16. “It took me nearly 20 years to get it right,” says Salisbury, an avid gardener who’s now in her 50s.

Getting it wrong meant bumming a cigarette so she could take a puff. And then one thing led to another and the habit roared back to life.

“I was caught in this loop of quitting for months, cheating with a puff, smoking again, quitting again, taking a puff again,” Salisbury says. “It was terrible and I wanted to be healthy and not smoke.”

Her advice: “Don’t cheat. There is no such thing as just one puff.”

Help Them Remember Their Why

In her years of helping people quit smoking, Alison D. Nix learned one important truth: People have to find their own reasons for quitting. And those reasons have to be important to them.

For Nix, a former smoker who quit in her 20s, it was money. Cigarettes were expensive for a graduate student. And getting a future job in public health meant that smoking was absolutely “not acceptable,” says Nix, who is the program manager for the University of Michigan's Healthy Tobacco Consultation Service.

For Augustson, also a former smoker, it was the birth of his daughter. “I smoked back in college and I liked it, but when my daughter was born I didn’t want her around cigarettes, so I didn’t want to be a smoker anymore,” says Augustson, who has been smoke-free for 30 years. “My daughter was more important than the cigarettes.”

For people like Tayfel, it’s about control over your own body. And for Fiorello and Salisbury, health was the top reason.

“Everyone can find one thing that is very important to them that smoking takes away,” Nix says. Ask your friend or relative what their reason is, and be ready to remind them of it.

Show Sources


Lisa Fiorello, Cleveland, OH.

Mayo Clinic: “Bronchitis,” and “Emphysema.”

BMJ Open: “Estimating the number of quit attempts it takes to quit smoking successfully in a longitudinal cohort of smokers."

Erik Augustson, PhD, MPH, National Cancer Institute Program Director, Tobacco Control Research Branch, Behavioral Research Program.

Roger Tayfel, Cleveland, OH.

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Is Nicotine Addictive?”

John Polito, nicotine cessation educator.

Nancy Salisbury, Philadelphia.

Alison D. Nix, MPH, CTTS-M, Program Manager, University of Michigan MHealthy Alcohol Management Program and MHealthy Tobacco Consultation Service.

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