Readers who are smokers will likely have heard that if you approach stopping smoking like any other major life change, with careful preparation and planning, you can succeed, and that quitting depends first on putting together a plan that will work for you. These beliefs stem from the prevailing model of how people stop smoking which states that smokers moves through a succession of motivational stages involving contemplating stopping, preparing to stop, and then subsequently trying to stop (Prochasksa & Velicer, 1997). Consequently, physicians, GPs and smoking cessation therapists have been charged with using the model’s ‘four As’ – ask, advise, assist, and arrange – to guide smokers through these stages of change (Royal College of Physicians, 2000). This typically involves assisting smokers to anticipate potential difficulties in the early stages of quitting (e.g. identify the people, places, and things which stimulate craving), make plans to avoid/resolve these difficulties, set a date on which they plan to have stopped smoking completely, and plan rewards for maintaining abstinence between now and the quit date.
Based on this philosophy of “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”, the overarching goals of current cessation guidelines are to identify the smoker’s current stage, make recommendations appropriate for this stage, and guide the smoker sequentially through to the final stage of putting the quit attempt into action. However this model has been criticised on many grounds, the most notable being the lack of evidence that most smokers actually plan their quit attempts in advance and that doing so increases their chance of success. Indeed, this model conflicts with the accounts of many ex-smokers who say they just decided to stop smoking one day and have not looked back since. In response to this gap in the literature, two relatively recent studies – one each in Canada and England – investigated the extent to which smokers plan their quit attempts and the extent to which planning increased the success of quit attempts.
The benefit of deciding to stop smoking immediately
Larabie (2005) found that while the majority of smokers (63%) planned their quit attempts in advance, the interesting finding was that the 67% of ex-smokers (i.e. successful quitters, defined as those who had not smoked in the past six months) had not planned their successful quit attempt in advance compared to 33% of ex-smokers who planned their successful quit attempt in advance. The three most commonly reported types of planning were (1) planning to quit on a significant date (e.g. birthday, New Year’s Day); (2) planning to obtain nicotine replacement medication in the near future); and (3) planning to quit once they had smoked all the cigarettes in their current carton.
Some examples of the unplanned quit attempts reported are given below, and more are available at the link in the references:
“I found out I was pregnant and I just quit” (LV, age 36).
“I just felt like I had had enough and it was not going to kill me” (CB, age 36).
“I got ‘the scare’. I went out from work to have a cigarette and got a severe dizzy spell and had difficulty walking for 20 minutes. I quit on the spot. I still had cigarettes left in my pack” (LF, age 40).
Just as interesting was Larabie’s finding that 79% of successful quit attempts were made unassisted (defined as no use of Bupropion, nicotine patches, nicotine gums, tapering, or hypnosis). Larabie’s findings therefore argue against the prevailing model that successful smoking cessation depends on receiving assistance to quit (from medications, counselling etc) and planning quit attempts in advance. Rather, the most effective quit attempts were found to be those done without prior planning and without assistance! The paradox in this, noted by Larabie, is that health care providers may actually be hindering smokers’ chances of quitting by dissuading unassisted quitting (and promoting the uptake of formal treatment programmes) and by discouraging sudden, unplanned quit attempts. These assumptions deserve testing in their own right.
A similar story in England
West and Sohal (2006) observed a similar success of unplanned quitting in their survey sample of 918 smokers and 996 ex-smokers in England. Almost half of all quit attempts (48.6%) were made without prior planning. Of the 611 quit attempts made between six months and five years previously, 65.4% of unplanned attempts lasted at least six months without smoking compared with 42.3% of planned attempts. This means that smokers who made unplanned quit attempts were 2.6 times more likely to still be not smoking six months later than those who made planned quit attempts. Likewise, smokers who made an attempt to stop smoking between six and twelve months previously were 2.5 times more likely to still be not smoking six months later than smokers who planned their quit attempts.
A sudden decision to not smoke any more cigarettes was both common and more likely to be successful than were quit attempts made after a period of planning. While this does not necessarily suggest that planning and forethought and promoting treatment options are counterproductive, it does provide a strong case for health care providers going against current guidelines to encourage smokers, particularly those on the cusp of wanting to quit, to recognise and act upon opportunities to quit on the spot. In challenge to the prevailing ‘stages of change’ model, findings from these two studies should encourage smokers to consider the benefits of not thinking ahead, not waiting until Monday or the New Year, not waiting till the carton is empty, but instead, quitting now, without warning, or a running start, or a few days to prepare. West and Sohal state that even small changes in a smoker’s motivation to quit can trigger big changes in his/her behaviour and so smokers should be encouraged to capitalise on any desire to stop smoking. For those readers who are thinking about stopping smoking, planning may help, but consider the larger benefit of quitting today, right now.
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Just for fun
The questions asked of smokers and ex-smokers in West and Sohal’s study are provided below. If you have tried to stop smoking or are an ex-smoker and feel comfortable answering, how would you answer?
Q1. Which of these statements best describes how your most recent quit attempt started?
(a) I did not plan the quit attempt in advance; I just did it.
(b) I planned the quit attempt for later the same day
(c) I planned the quit attempt the day beforehand
(d) I planned the quit attempt a few days beforehand
(e) I planned the quit attempt a few weeks beforehand
(f) I planned the quit attempt a few months beforehand
(h) Cannot remember.
Q2. How long did your most recent quit attempt last?
Larabie, L. (2005). To what extent do smokers plan quit attempts? Tobacco Control, 14, 425 – 428.
Larabie, L. (2005). To what extent do smokers plan quit attempts? Appendix A: Examples of responses. Accessible at:
Prochaska, J. O. & Velicer, W. F. (1997). The transtheoretical model of health behaviour change. American Journal of Health Promotion, 12, 38 – 48.
Royal College of Physicians (2000). Nicotine addiction in Britain. London: RCP.
West, R. & Sohal, T. (2006). “Catastrophic” pathways to smoking cessation: findings from national survey. BMJ, 332, 458 – 460.