By Thomas J. Glynn, PhD
For those who have traveled London's Underground, or Tube, the term "Mind the Gap" will be familiar. It's the warning for riders to be aware that there is a gap of several inches between the station platform and the train cars. In the public health community, we also have a gap: the gap between the number of smokers who want to quit and those who actually succeed. The American Cancer Society Great American Smokeout, held this year on November 15, is an opportunity to remind us that we also need to "mind the gap."
In the United States, this gap is very wide. Nearly 70% of the country's 43.8 million smokers say they would like to quit smoking; 52% report making at least one serious attempt to quit each year; but a disappointingly low 4% are actually successful in doing so.
How can the Smokeout help us "mind the gap?" In the event's 37 year history - going all the way back to just after the smoke-laden "Mad Men" era - we have learned a great deal about helping smokers move from wanting to quit to actually doing so. For instance, we now know that nicotine is a highly addictive drug - nearly as powerful as heroin and cocaine - and that smoking is both physically addictive (due to the pull of nicotine) and psychologically addictive (due to the rituals we build around smoking), making quitting a challenge for most smokers. But we also know that more than 50 million Americans living today have successfully quit smoking and that there are tools that can boost the chances of being successful, like support groups and medications.
One way of describing how the Smokeout can be helpful can be called a "3R" approach: remind, remember, revel.
Remind smokers that quitting is a way to add potentially a decade or more to their life, to see their child or grandchild graduate from high school or college, or save thousands of dollars each year on cigarette, healthcare, and even dry cleaning costs;
Remind family and friends of smokers that they should offer their smoking relatives and friends support and help them attain the tough, but achievable, goal of becoming a nonsmoker;
Remind healthcare providers that the Smokeout is a built-in opportunity to help a smoker stop, or refer them to a program that can help them do so. As former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop observed, "...helping a smoker stop may be the most important thing that you do that day."
Remember that the American Cancer Society has a wide range of resources to help smokers and their family and friends quit, from stop-smoking tips to smoking cost calculators so you can see how much you're actually spending on tobacco. You can also call us at 1-800-227-2345, anytime of the day or night, for local and online resources and helplines to help you quit.
Revel in the freedom, better health, and economic benefits of being a former smoker. You can use a day like the Great American Smokeout to get started on that road.
If at first you don't succeed...
Finally, we probably all know someone who has tried to quit but who, because smoking and nicotine are difficult to give up, was not successful. Maybe that's you. But don't give up trying -- making multiple quit attempts before finally staying quit is typical.
The Great American Smokeout is a great way to start the quitting process. Once you do, you can use the resources that the American Cancer Society and other organizations offer (see above or see my Expert Voices blog on the topic), consider quitting on a different day (some suggest Mondays), or try a social media approach such as the National Cancer Institute's "Unite2Quit" approach).
So, if you or someone you know was not able to "mind the gap" and tripped on their way to becoming a nonsmoker, the best approach is just to smile ruefully, learn from how you tripped up, and then get on the "quitting train" again. And remember that the American Cancer Society and our Great American Smokeout are here to help.
Dr. Glynn is director of cancer science and trends and director of international cancer control for the American Cancer Society.