By J. Lee Westmaas, PhD
It's no secret that trying to quit smoking is hard. It can trigger irritability, anxiety, depression, and all sorts of other unpleasant emotions and physical feelings. But quitting is one of the most important things you can do for your health, and for the health of others.
Sometimes smokers who want to quit are told that they should get their social network --the people around them -- to help, maybe by announcing to friends and family that they're going to quit, and asking for their support.
That support could be emotional -- listening to the smoker vent frustrations, providing encouragement, or simply being extra tolerant of crabbiness caused by nicotine withdrawal. It could also be practical, like helping out with tasks when withdrawal symptoms get to be too much, or providing a distraction when a craving hits.
Support Linked to Success
Research shows that people desperately want to help their loved ones quit and often contact telephone hotlines and other cessation resources for information on how to help. The question is, does this support really make a difference? If so, it's something we should encourage.
To find out, we need to look at the research evidence.
Some studies have indeed shown that the more support smokers say they got from other people during a quit attempt, the more likely they were to have quit. The problem is, these results don't prove that the support was a real factor in the smokers' success. It's also possible that people who weren't able to quit might be more inclined to blame others for a lack of support, regardless of how much they actually received.
To really get at the question of whether friends and family can help a smoker quit we need studies in which researchers randomly assign smokers to either receive or not receive social support from other people for their quit attempt, and then see whether smokers in the supported group are more likely to quit successfully. To date, many studies using this approach haven't been very informative, possibly because the smokers were already enrolled in professionally-led quit smoking programs and might not have needed additional support from their family and friends.
So what we need is to find smokers who are quitting on their own. Two studies that have done this have found that support from friends can have positive effects, at least in the short term.
Searching for the Right Formula
We don't know exactly why social support helps smokers quit, but understanding why will help us develop the best support strategies. Does support reduce anxiety and stress, which then alleviates cravings and the likelihood of lapsing? Does it increase feelings of achievement and motivation to quit? Who should be the person providing the most support -- is a friend better than a spouse? Does the gender of the supporter matter? Are some people just naturally less inclined to benefit from support no matter what?
Interestingly, recent data the American Cancer Society collected from those wanting to quit showed that smokers quitting for the first time expected to receive lots of support from members of their social networks, yet the majority of smokers who had previously tried to quit said they didn't get very much. Obviously expectations are not being met and only through well-designed research can we understand how to address this.
In the meantime, if you want your family and friends to support your quit attempt, tell them about your plans and talk with them about what would be helpful. Just as important: tell them what wouldn't be helpful, like criticizing you if you slip.
For more tips on how to quit smoking, see our section on quitting tobacco, or call our 24-hour information line at 1-800-227-2345.
J. Lee Westmaas is director of tobacco control research in the Behavioral Research Center at the American Cancer Society.