By Paul Brunetta, MD

 February 19,  2019

No other artist conveys the agony of kicking heroin like John Lennon in his tortured lyrics for Cold Turkey:

My body is aching Goose-pimple bone
Can’t see no body
Leave me alone

My eyes are wide open
Can’t get to sleep
One thing I’m sure of
I’m in at the deep freeze

When Lennon wrote those words in 1969, he was a global rock star, revered, untouchable, brought to his knees by addiction like a common junkie. His title, “Cold Turkey” was first used more than a century ago to compare the clammy flesh of heroin withdrawals to the plucked skin of poultry.

Had it been a few years later, Lennon might have written a song about the joys of methadone, which became widely available in the Seventies as an option for weaning off heroin without the gruesome withdrawals.

These days, “cold turkey” can apply to quitting just about anything abruptly. But unlike kicking heroin, going cold turkey off cigarettes has become a badge of honor for some people. They might suggest to you that tapering off, using nicotine patches or gum, and medications like Chantix or Zyban – are “a waste of time” or like training wheels that you eventually have to go without.

One of the major promoters of going cold turkey is a British author named Allen Carr.  He launched his “Easyway” series of books and seminars on quitting smoking, quitting drinking and quitting everything else in the 1980s. Carr says you can quit smoking immediately without experiencing cravings, weight gain, or mood swings. All you need to do is reframe your relationship with cigarettes and stop.

Carr, who died in 2006, had no medical or scientific background, nor did his method. To be fair, he’s not the only self-appointed “expert” on quitting smoking. There are many motivational speakers who write books on how to do whatever their readers want to do. They know how to persuade readers that they are capable of doing the thing that the readers already want to do enough that they were willing to pay someone to tell them they can do it. But how long does that motivation last?

There’s nothing wrong with quitting cold turkey. Some people can stop smoking cigarettes and never pick them up again. If you can stop smoking successfully that way…that’s awesome!  But if you try and fail, it doesn’t mean that you can’t quit. It just means that cold turkey is not the right approach for you as an individual.

It does not mean that smokers who can quit cold turkey are somehow better or stronger than you are. Don’t let anyone convince you that it’s the only way to go. Some people’s level of addiction is higher than others. Tobacco use disorder is a recognized medical disease and for smokers who need more support there are nicotine replacement therapies and medications available to help ease withdrawals.

The single most important thing you’ll ever do for your health as a smoker is to stop smoking. The earlier you do it, the greater the benefit. If you try to quit cold turkey and can’t, there are so many more options now – you can learn to quit through other people’s experiences and a whole host of possible therapies. Talk to your health care provider and start to review them together.

In our next blog: Why nicotine is such a powerfully addictive substance.

We’ll describe how nicotine receptors in your brain respond when you smoke cigarettes or vape — and why it’s so easy to get re-addicted after not smoking for months or years.

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