Your Quit-Smoking Fears Debunked

Dreading the weight gain, bad mood, or chance of failure? Think again.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 01, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

You know you should quit smoking for your health's sake. So what's holding you back?

Maybe you’re afraid of the weight gain, that it will wreck your mood, or that it won't work. But what if that wasn't necessarily so?

It's time to lay your quit-smoking fears to rest once and for all. Here's what experts want you to know about why some of those fears aren't what they're cracked up to be, and why none of them should keep you from quitting.

Fear: I’ll Gain Too Much Weight

Many people worry about gaining weight when they quit smoking. But not everybody who quits gains weight.

“There are some physiological effects that cause people to crave carbohydrates when they quit smoking,” says Michael Steinberg, MD, MPH, director of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Tobacco Dependence Program. “Nicotine is an appetite suppressant, so when people do stop smoking, they tend to have an increased appetite.”

But if you do pack on pounds, the average gain is between six to nine pounds-not the 50 or 100 that people fear.

Plus, you’d need to gain more than 100 pounds after quitting before you even start to diminish the benefits quitting provides for your health, Steinberg says.

Weight gain typically happens early on, in the days and weeks when you’re withdrawing from nicotine.

If you use a nicotine replacement therapy like the patch or the gum, you tend not to even see much of a weight gain during those early weeks, Steinberg says. And by the time you’ve withdrawn from the drug, you’re better able to tackle watching your weight a little more carefully.

If you’re still concerned, take steps to thwart weight gain by keeping your exercise routine up or launching a walking program. Stash only healthy snacks and replace empty-calorie carbs for healthier noshes like peanut butter on an apple or one ounce of cheddar with crackers.

Fear: My Social Life Will Tank

If you glance at personal ads or online dating profiles, people almost exclusively prefer nonsmokers. You’ll rarely spot “Looking for a smoker” among the listed entries. In fact, quitting may actually improve your social life because your hair, skin, clothes, and car will smell better.

When you visit a restaurant, party, or social event where smoking isn’t allowed, you may end up huddled outside as an outcast. “The overwhelming majority of states have some laws on the books about limiting public exposure to tobaccos smoke because we know what a health problem it is to be exposed to secondhand smoke,” Steinberg says.

However, there is an element of smokers banding together and establishing a common bond over smoking.

“When someone quits, that group solidarity may be at risk, but that’s a small part of the overall social interactions people have,” says Michael Eriksen, ScD, director of the Institute of Public Health at Georgia State University.

It may help to skip hanging out with smokers for a few weeks until you’ve got a handle on your quitting, anyway.

The bottom line: It’s more difficult to find places you can smoke during a social activity, and it’s getting harder to find other people who smoke, so quitting may actually be a boon to your social life in the long run.

Fear: My Creativity Will Plummet

If you work in a creative field or enjoy an artistic hobby, you may fear that quitting will stifle your creative juice. But there’s no research that suggests smoking affects creativity.

“One of the withdrawal symptoms from nicotine is difficulty concentrating, so if you’re a smoker and you try to quit smoking, you may notice during the first few weeks that you’re having more difficulty concentrating. And certainly concentration is an important characteristic for being creative and getting work done,” Steinberg says.

Impaired concentration is a short-lived symptom and not even noticed by some.

Creative types may have an association of working on a project and lighting up. They associate the cigarette with the creative process. “In reality, they’ll do just as well once they quit smoking at putting out those masterpieces,” Steinberg says.

Fear: I’ll Be in a Chronic Bad Mood

“Nicotine is clearly a very powerful brain drug that gets into the brain quickly and results in dopamine release,” Eriksen says.

In other words, smoking makes you feel calm and content once you’re addicted.

One of the known nicotine withdrawal symptoms is depressed mood. It’s a physical response to taking tobacco smoke and nicotine out of your system and your brain.

“The good news is that for those who do suffer blue mood as a result of quitting, using FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies to treat the withdrawal symptoms improves mood.

“Since depressed mood is a withdrawal symptom, we do stress that people seek some type of treatment, whether it’s their primary care doctor, a tobacco treatment program, or a telephone quit line,” Steinberg says. That way if you do become depressed when quitting, you can discuss it with a professional.

By the time you’re smoke-free six weeks to two months, most of the physiological symptoms, including depressed mood, are history.

Fear: The Damage Is Already Done

It’s never too late to quit smoking. The benefits start within hours of your last cigarette and they continue for years down the road.

For example, Steinberg says that quitting smoking today reduces your risk of heart attack starting tomorrow -- and by the first year your risk is cut in half. “It’s a lame excuse to say you’ve smoked too long, you already did the damage, or you have to die from something,” Eriksen says.

If you continue to smoke, Steinberg says, your risk of dying from lung cancer over your lifetime is about 17%. Someone who quits at 50 years old, who has smoked 30-35 years, reduces their risk of lung cancer down to 5%. If you quit earlier, at age 30, your risk of dying of lung cancer is almost that of a never smoker. The results are similar across the board with many diseases.

In fact, people who quit have fewer complications from their medical problems, have fewer additional medical problems, and their response to treatment for medical problems improves if they’re not smoking.

“The earlier you quit the better off you are. But it’s never too late. Even if you’ve already been smoking for 30 years,” Steinberg says.

More people have quit than continue to smoke.

Fear: I’ll Fail

No one likes to fail. Quitting smoking is one of the hardest things someone can do.

“We see people come to our program who have successfully quit heroin addiction, cocaine addiction, alcohol addiction, and they come in and say, ‘I’ve given up all these things but I can’t get rid of my cigarettes,’” Steinberg says.

That’s because nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs there is.

If you’ve tried quitting several times in the past, seek a different method. If you went cold turkey, look into a nicotine replacement therapy.

If you previously went about it on your own, join a support group or call a quit line this go round.

People who quit on their own have a less than 5% success rate. Yet people who use all the resources available to them often quit successfully on the very first try, Steinberg says.

There’s no magic number that you have to get to the second, fourth, or sixth quit attempt before you are successful.

Eriksen says two things can ultimately ensure a successful quit attempt. One is a desire to quit for yourself -- not for your spouse, your boss, or anyone else. The second is confidence in your ability to succeed. If you couple those two things, you boost your odds of success.

Data show 70% of smokers would like to quit and wish they’d never started, Eriksen says. Once you’re ready and you have the desire and confidence, you’re on your way to success.

Show Sources


Michael Steinberg, MD, MPH, director - UMDNJ-Tobacco Dependence Program.

Michael Eriksen, ScD, director, Institute of Public Health, Georgia State University.

American Cancer Society: "Guide to Quitting Smoking."

FDA: "FDA 101: Smoking Cessation Products."

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