Healthbeat Report: Quitting Time

February 11, 2010 8:34:05 PM PST
Any smoker who's tried to give up cigarettes can tell you it's not easy. But the problem may be bigger than even the medical community has realized. Mark Twain once said, "quitting smoking is easy. I've done it a thousand times." Many smokers can relate to that, but why is it so tough?

Some people quit cold turkey. But that's not the norm. So what's the secret? Northwestern University researchers are trying to figure this out and say it may all be in the approach.

"I have tried and that first week or so I'm ready to tear someone's head off," said Tonia Bailey.

"It's not one, one is two and three and a pack and then I go again," said Jeanne Walsh.

Jeanne Walsh and Tonia Bailey have never met don't know each other but do have two things in common. Both are smokers who haven't been able to quit. Now they're taking part in a stop smoking study at Northwestern University. It includes counseling and the nicotine patch. But here's what's different: the theory that a smoking addiction needs to be treated as a chronic illness that needs long term help just like cancer, depression and heart disease.

"They really struggle through their lifetime and if that's the case more than likely we need to be providing treatments for a longer period of time," said Brian Hitsman, Ph.D., smoking expert, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Psychologist Brian Hitsman is the man heading the study in Chicago. Currently, he says, stop smoking treatments involve medications and psychological therapy for a short period between eight and 12 weeks. But so many people fail under these short lived approaches. They may be able to give up the smokes for a while but eventually the habit lures them back in.

Is it a lack of willpower? Maybe not. The theory is the treatments just aren't enough.

"Depression, for example, depression is chronic and people need to take meds for rest of lives it's not unlikely it would be case for tobacco we don't know," said Dr. Hitsman.

It sounds radical but more and more smoking experts are exploring this approach.

In the Northwestern study, patients are put into three groups. They'll all get a full year of counseling but their time on the patch will vary. One group wears it for the typical eight weeks. But the other groups are going to get the medication for a much longer time, either six months or an entire year.

"We're trying to figure out if there is an additional benefit to wearing the patch longer," said Jenny Cueto, researcher, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

One of the ideas behind treating smoking long term is the belief that chronic smokers are exposed to nicotine and other chemicals from cigarettes that have permanently affected the brain, changing it in ways that make it hard to quit for good.

"There are people who report craving years later after having not smoked. So there's something the brain remembers sort of it's experience of receiving nicotine," said Cueto.

Tonia Bailey, 41, has been smoking since she was 18.

"I'm afraid of becoming a statistic," said Bailey.

Jeanne Walsh, 33, has also had enough. After trying everything else, she's hoping this is the program that will finally make her a quitter -- for good.

"This study is a fantastic way to get this done," said Walsh.

Researchers are hoping, among other things that if they prove longer treatments mean greater success insurance will cover more of the cost.

University of Pennsylvania tobacco experts are also involved in the study which is being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Click here for more information on the study and who is eligible

Other resources:

Quitting Smoking
National Institutes of Health

Smoke-Free Illinois
Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago

American Lung Association
Stop Smoking