Why the COVID-19 Crisis might be the Best Time to Quit Tobacco

by | Mar 27, 2020

These past weeks have been stressful for all of us, and quitting tobacco might seem impossible in such a challenging time. However, we know that compromising your lungs can put you at greater risk for COVID-19 – and we know it is possible to quit if you are motivated to try. HCCA reached out to the experts at the Maine Tobacco Helpline with some key questions, and we received some answers that might surprise you – and make this quit attempt your most successful.

HCCA: Why should I prioritize quitting in the midst of a pandemic?

MTHL: There are many things happening right now that we cannot control, and this can feel scary. Smoking/vaping is one area of your life where you can take control, it is something achievable to focus on during this time and will help you both physically and financially.

If you have ever thought about quitting, now might be a good time to try. Smoking becomes part of our normal everyday routine, and one of the hard parts of quitting is breaking that routine. Right now, our everyday routines may be very different than normal. One positive side to this is that while we adapt and create new routines, smoking or vaping do not need to be part of these.

We also know that smoking and vaping damages our lungs, and that people who have lung problems seem to be more likely to experience serious complications from the corona virus. Your body begins to heal within hours of quitting smoking, so it’s not too late. Smoking also damages our immune systems; quitting will help your immune system to work better. Lastly, there are the financial benefits to quitting. The current situation is impacting the economy, our jobs and financial security. Quitting smoking and vaping means one less expense to worry about.

HCCA: What are the first steps to quitting? Should I do anything differently considering the current pandemic?

MTHL: The first step to quitting is deciding that you want to try. It can also be useful to start to notice when and why you are smoking. Each time you light up or vape, ask yourself, “Why am I smoking?” It might be that you have a physical craving, you might be stressed, bored, or you are smoking without thinking about it out of habit. Once you start to notice when you a smoking or vaping, ask yourself, ‘If I were quitting, what would I do instead?’ For example, if you notice that you always smoke after dinner, you might decide to try doing the dishes right away, or watching a TV show, or having a piece of gum instead of a cigarette. A good first step is to contact the Maine Tobacco Helpline (1-800-207-1230) or go online to TheQuitlink.com; we can help you access free medications to help you with quitting, and also help you come up with a quit plan that works for your own needs and situation.

HCCA: How does someone maintain their routine during a stressful time? During quarantine or social distancing?

MTHL: This really depends on the individual’s routine. If they are feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to adapt, I would suggest that they start by writing down what their normal daily routine would look like. Leave in anything that they are still able to do and erase anything that is no longer feasible. Now in those empty spaces, add what they could do instead and include some activities which help to reduce stress. For example, the first hour of the day might usually involve waking up at 6, eating breakfast and then driving to work. The new plan might be waking up at 6, eating breakfast and then taking a short walk outside, calling a friend or listening to music they enjoy.

HCCA: What are some suggestions for people who need distractions from nicotine cravings?

MTHL: First, accept that you will have cravings, know that they are normal and it’s OK to really miss tobacco. There are two tactics for managing cravings:

  • One is to sit with a craving, take deeps breaths and observe how you feel, watching the craving coming and then going. It can help to have a phrase to repeat to yourself while you do this such as “I am OK” or “I want to smoke but I don’t need to smoke.” We call this ‘surfing’ the craving.
  • The second tactic is distraction. This is really individual. I’d suggest writing down a list of possible activities ahead of time that appeal to you. This could be:
  1. Chores, such as doing the dishes or vacuuming
  2. Creative activities, such as knitting, coloring books or playing a musical instrument
  3. Spiritual activities, such as prayer or meditation
  4. Social activities, like maybe call a friend or play cards with someone you live with
  5. Self-care such as a warm bath or shower, combing your hair, brushing your teeth or giving yourself a manicure

When the craving happens, pick something from your list and do it. In that moment, it might help to ask yourself, “Why am I craving?” If you are tired, you might want to choose a relaxing activity; if you are bored, then maybe something productive; if you are lonely, it might be time to call a friend.

HCCA: How can I relieve my stress other than smoking or vaping?

MTHL: If you have relied on smoking or vaping to manage stress, recognize that nothing is going to feel exactly the same as smoking/vaping. At first, anything you try is going to feel a bit different, but the more you practice, the better you will get at managing your stress in a healthy way.

One really simple way to start to relax when you are stressed is to take 10 slow breaths. If you can find a place to have this ‘time out,’ that also helps. While taking deep breaths, having a phrase you repeat to yourself or a ‘mantra’ can also help. This might be ‘I am going to be OK’ or simply repeating ‘in’ as you breathe in and ‘out’ as you breathe out.

Mindfulness or meditation can also help build resilience to stress, and there are some great online resources to get started with these. If you enjoy exercise, then getting moving can also really help, this might be going for a walk or a run or trying an indoor exercise routine. You don’t need to run a marathon, just 5 minutes of dancing or walking up and down stairs or gentle stretches while sitting or lying down can really make a difference. And then there is asking for support, it may be calling a friend, family member or a quit line. Having a conversation with someone in your life who is supportive of your quit attempt can really help.

HCCA: What are some ways at home that someone can cope with nicotine withdrawals?

MTHL: Physical nicotine withdrawal can be managed with several over-the-counter medications. These include the nicotine patch, nicotine gum and nicotine lozenge. These can be purchased from most drugstores; they come with instructions and the pharmacist can help you decide what might work best for you and explain how to use it. They may also be available at no cost through the Maine Tobacco HelpLine or online at TheQuitlink.com. While these medications can make you feel a lot more comfortable, they are not going to stop you thinking about smoking or vaping. That is why it can help to have ways to distract yourself from cravings and a plan for how you will handle situations where you want to smoke. The Maine Tobacco HelpLine is a free service; give us a call and we can talk to you about a plan for how to get through cravings. Some people also find it helpful to have something to put in their mouth instead of the cigarette; this might be chewing gum, a toothpick, drinking straw or cinnamon stick.

HCCA: What if I’ve tried to quit before and it didn’t work?

MTHL: Congratulations! It means you are completely normal. Most people try to quit many times before they quit for good. The good news is that the more times you try to quit, the more likely you are to succeed. Each time we try to quit, we learn what works for us and also what doesn’t work. The more we understand about our own quitting process, the better equipped we are to make it work next time. If you have tried to quit before, think about what worked for you, what brought you back to smoking, and what you might do differently this time. The Maine Tobacco Helpline is a great resource to help you figure out how to understand your past quit attempts and make a plan for how to try to quit again.

HCCA: Are people who smoke or vape more at risk for getting COVID-19?

MTHL: Smoking makes it harder for our immune systems to work effectively, so smoking or vaping makes us more likely to get sick. We know that smoking and vaping damage our lungs and cause many other health conditions. It also seems that people who have underlying health conditions and or lung issues are more likely to experience serious illness and need hospitalization when infected with COVID-19.

HCCA: What if the friends or family I am living with are smoking and/or vaping?

MTHL: A good place to start is to ask if you can talk to them about your own health concerns rather than making the conversation about their smoking. Explain your concerns about being around smoking or vaping, and ask if they have any ideas that might help you. This might sound like, “I’m really worried that the smoke from the cigarettes indoors is harming my lungs and will make me more likely to get really sick. What do you think we should do?” Hopefully, the people you are living with will come up with a solution that feels OK for everyone involved. It might be that they are considering quitting; it might be that they decide to smoke or vape outdoors or limit their use to one room in the house. If they are not willing to change their smoking or vaping, try to find a location in the house where you can be away from their smoke. This might mean finding a bedroom that is smoke free, or moving to a different room while others are smoking.




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