'I didn't believe that I could ever quit smoking'

Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you – but while some enjoy the habit, others find it incredibly difficult to give up and some even believe that they have been doing it for so long that there is no point in stopping now.

But according to experts, it’s never too late to quit smoking as every cigarette takes its toll on your body and by giving up, at whatever stage you are in life, the chances of developing a smoking-related disease may be reduced.

Graham Kelly started smoking when he was 18 – but two years ago, he decided to stop and hasn’t looked back since.

“I started out of boredom and also as a means of getting to know people on cigarette breaks during my summer job,” admits the 37-year old. “Over the years, I would smoke about three packs [of 20] a week and if I was at an event like a wedding or something, I would chain smoke if I was in the smoking area.

“It definitely had an effect on my pocket and my health as I was less fit, so exercise would really take it out of me. I was also quite breathless, and my skin was grey looking, so for health and happiness reasons, I decided to try and stop.”

The Dublin man used an online support system combined with a weekly call from a counsellor to help him overcome his habit and says he cannot believe that he has finally quit.

“I used quit.ie and found it incredibly helpful,” he says. “Knowing that I would receive a daily text and could have a chat every week with someone who understood what I was going through made all the difference.

“I feel really great today and have only had the odd slip – four cigarettes in two years – which is incredible considering I never thought I would be able to give up. Now I can be in a social setting and not be bothered about the fact that I am not having a cigarette – I never thought that would happen.”

Meanwhile, Lynne Fitzgerald has been a smoker for most of her life. She started as a teenager and freely admits that she was rarely without a cigarette in her hand. But while for many years she didn’t have any side effects, last year she got a shocking diagnosis which made her take the decision to try and quit smoking after being addicted to nicotine for almost half a century.

“I started smoking at 18 when I was in my first year at art college in Dublin,” says the Wicklow woman. “I was miserable and stressed and was having a hard time finding my feet. So when I got together with my partner, who was a smoker, that was that. And from then on, I smoked on the hour, every hour at the very least – I was a continual smoker. The expense part didn’t bother me, as an addict can always afford their drug of choice and I didn’t have any side effects for 49 years – until this time last year, when I became breathless and after getting checked out, I got a diagnosis of COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] in July of 2018.

“This totally freaked me out and I started to do some research. I understood from this that although I could not reverse the damage already done, I could probably maintain my health at its current level by stopping smoking.”

The 68-year old visual artist contacted the HSE Quit team online and then the primary care support team in Wicklow, where she signed up for a weekly counselling session. It wasn’t an easy step to take but she persevered and has been smoke-free for the past five months.

And although Lynne hasn’t returned to peak health or fitness, she realises that if she hadn’t stopped, her future would be a lot more uncertain. “Although I have quit, I don’t feel that great sometimes as my breathing is still poor and I have piled on extra weight,” she admits. “So I have to remind myself that I would probably feel much worse if I was still smoking, and that it is early days considering the lifetime of nicotine addiction behind me. I do appreciate not having to go to the shops so much or having to have smokes available all the time. But my partner still smokes, and I find that difficult as I still have strong urges to light up.

“What works for me is the mantra that one puff will get me straight back into the habit, so I resist that one puff, one day at a time. And the regular support from Vincent, my trainer with HSE Quit, has been paramount, and I would urge anyone wishing to stop to sign up with their local team. Also, reading the experiences on the Facebook quit page, and being able to share there is also useful as you don’t feel so alone in the struggle. I believe that giving yourself credit for the effort you are making is important.”

Martina Blake, HSE National Lead of the Tobacco Free Ireland Programme, says there are so many reasons to stop smoking and a huge percentage of smokers have successfully kicked the habit.

“Apart from the personal health benefits and reducing your own risk of life-threatening diseases, you will be protecting your loved ones and the people around you from second-hand smoke,” she says. “The Healthy Ireland Survey 2019 has shown in the last 12 months that 40pc of smokers have made an attempt to quit, with health concerns being the prime motivator for people wanting to stop. However, we know that for some, quitting can be extremely difficult.”

Dr Paul Kavanagh, Public Health Medicine Specialist with the HSE and Public Health Advisor to the HSE Tobacco Free Ireland Programme, agrees: “The Healthy Ireland Surveys have consistently shown that most smokers are unhappy with their habit and want to quit,” he says. “In fact, almost one in two smokers made an attempt to quit in the previous year, yet only one in 10 was successful.

“But quitting smoking is a process – most people who quit successfully do so after several attempts, but it is worth the effort. You will save money – at current prices, if you are smoking 20 cigarettes per day, then quitting will put an extra €5,000 per year in your pocket. That said, you can’t put a price on good health. But if you stop smoking, you begin to feel better almost immediately – and most importantly, you will avoid the very real risk of serious, long-term and often killer illnesses.”

And according to Martina Blake, there are lots of supports available for those who want to quit.

“The HSE’s Quit service is a free, personalised support service to help quitters – providing a team of trained advisors, online tools, understanding and support,” she says.

“If anyone is thinking of giving up smoking, pick up the phone and call us on Freephone 1800 201 203 and find out what services are available to you over the phone or in your local area. The Quit Service also has a network of face-to-face HSE Quit services in locations around the country, providing one-to-one and group support for smokers, details of which are on the quit.ie website.”

Top tips: how to quit smoking

⬤ Prepare to quit: take a moment to write down your reasons for quitting. Keep them close to hand or even stick them on your fridge as a reminder to stay strong.

⬤ Change your routine and habits : do you normally have a cigarette with a coffee or tea? Then change your routine – have a cup of water instead, or hold your cup in the other hand.

⬤ Keep check on cravings: your craving for nicotine will peak at three to five minutes and will pass if you deal with it by using the four ‘Ds’.

1. Delay at least three to five minutes and the urge will pass;

2. Drink a glass of water or fruit juice;

3. Distract yourself, move away from the situation;

2. Deep breathe – breathe slowly and deeply.

⬤ Get by with a little help from your friends: supportive friends, family and even work colleagues could make all the difference to you on your Quit journey.

⬤ The single best advice is to help yourself quit by getting support from the Quit team. The service is available to everyone and is free of charge. Using a support service makes you twice as likely to succeed.

⬤ Find details of your local free HSE stop smoking supports. For more information, visit quit.ie

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