Young tobacco users got an unpleasant surprise for the holidays in 2019: Just before Christmas, lawmakers raised the federal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. It’s a significant change, one designed in part to curb smoking in older teenagers and prevent children from picking up a bad habit before they even leave high school.
The change was part of a huge spending bill signed into law on December 20, 2019. And while lawmakers were trying to do something about the troubling rise in e-cigarette use among minors, they may have inadvertently created a big problem among those currently hooked on nicotine.
Don’t get us wrong. We support measures that prevent younger people from getting hooked on a dangerous and deadly habit. But we also know that people who are addicted to nicotine can have trouble quitting, even when they want to. A sudden law change means that thousands of young adults across the country must quit cold turkey or risk breaking the law to get what they need.
If you find yourself in this category, don’t despair. You can ditch your nicotine habit. It will take work, but it’s worth it, and not just because the law says you have to. Here’s where to start if you’re ready to quit.
Addiction is a powerful thing.
You know that smoking fills your lungs with poison, but you do it anyway. Why? Well, it’s thanks to the highly addictive nature of nicotine, a drug that occurs naturally in tobacco. And like other drugs, nicotine makes you feel good — literally. Nicotine triggers the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters in the brain that make you happy, in the “reward circuit” of your brain. To add ironic insult to injury, nicotine also boosts your body’s dopamine response in the reward circuits.
In effect, nicotine makes you happy and tricks your brain into seeking out that mild “high” over and over. Before long, you become addicted to it, and you need more and more of the dose to satisfy the craving.
Obeying federal law is a good idea, but it’s not the only good reason to stop smoking (or using other tobacco products). Quitting smoking now may save you the pain and heartache of literal pains and heartache when you’re older. If you stop smoking right now, you can cut your risk of heart attack and stroke down to levels of a nonsmoking adult in about 15 years.
But you don’t have to wait a decade to see marked benefits from ditching this bad habit. Here’s a timeline of what happens when you stop smoking, courtesy Healthline:
- 20 minutes: Your blood pressure and pulse drop to normal levels just 20 minutes after your last cigarette
- 8 hours: Carbon monoxide, a prominent chemical in cigarettes, drops to a more normal level in your bloodstream. Oxygen levels increase. You can breathe better.
- 1 day: Thanks to increased oxygen and widening arteries and veins, your risk of heart attack decreases after a single 24-hour period without cigarettes.
- 2 days: Damaged nerve endings start to regrow, and senses that may have been dulled with smoking start to return.
- 3 days: Your bronchial tubes start to relax, and your lungs fill with air more easily after just 3 days without a cigarette. Take a bigger breath (because now you can).
- 1 week: You’re 9 times more likely to quit smoking for good if you make it to a week without a cigarette.
- 1 month: The fibers in your lungs that help prevent infection start to grow back, which means you may feel fewer symptoms of infections, like sinus problems. You may also have more energy at this point.
- 6 months: At 6 months in, you may feel less inclined to pick up a cigarette when the going gets tough. You’ll also be coughing up less phlegm thanks to clearer airways.
- 1 year: Lung function continues to improve dramatically, allowing you to exercise and breathe more easily.
- 5 years: Your risk of dying from lung cancer drops 50% after five years without a cigarette (compared to when you smoked).
- 10 years: After just a decade without smoking, your risk of dying from lung cancer drops to that of a nonsmoker. Healthy cells replace the precancerous ones. You’re also less likely to develop smoking-related cancers like esophageal, mouth, bladder, kidney and pancreatic.
Stopping smoking does amazing things for your body, but it is not easy. You may be able to breathe easier by day three, but your body will fight the lack of nicotine via withdrawal symptoms. Now that you know why you need to quit, let’s talk methods.
Cold Turkey vs. Other Methods
Per WebMD, about 90% of people who stop smoking go the cold turkey route. That’s when you just stop smoking, period. That may be the best way to do it, according to research from 2016. One study found that people who quit smoking cold turkey were more successful over a longer time period.
Still, there’s something to be said for the gentler approach. A “quit day,” for example, gives you a chance to pick a day a few weeks from now when you’ll stop smoking. In the interim, you can gradually cut back on cigarettes or smoke as many as you normally do. The goal here is to plan for your smoking cessation by enlisting a support group, gathering supplies (like nicotine replacement products) and preparing yourself for the change.
Another option is to seek out help and support from a behavioral therapist, one who specializes in addiction or smoking cessation counseling. Your health insurance may cover these visits since they’re relevant to your health. You may also find free counseling meetings or other services if you check with your doctor about smoking cessation programs.
Experts seem to agree that the best approach is the one that works, and it’s usually a combination of methods. You can enlist a support group while you’re going cold turkey and using nicotine patches at the outset.
Just be careful not to replace one bad habit with another. Example: You may feel hungrier as your body goes through withdrawals or that you need to eat more than usual. Instead of gorging on junk food, try chewing gum or drinking more water. If you need to munch on something, opt for veggies like celery and carrots.
Resources for Smoking Cessation
Feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of giving up smoking? As we said, quitting isn’t easy. Your brain wants to keep smoking, and your body will fight you on the decision. But as with any habit, time and practice makes perfect. And you don’t have to quit smoking on your own. In fact, you shouldn’t. Enlist the help of friends who don’t smoke and others in your life who can help ease the transition. You can also reach out to:
- The CDC: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a helpful website and a free phone line to help you get started on smoking cessation. Just call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) to learn more.
- The American Lung Association: The ALA also offers a website and other valuable information for people who want to quit smoking for good. Check out their Freedom From Smoking program as well as the Quitter’s Circle.
The new law may curb freshly-minted adults from picking up a bad habit, but it could also create some problems for 18- to 20-year-olds who currently use tobacco. If you need help quitting smoking, reach out to your doctor first for advice. Depending on other health conditions you might have, your doctor might recommend different methods for kicking your habit. Your health insurance plan may even cover specialized programs for cessation. Check with your insurer for information.
Remember that not every method works the same for every person. You may need to go through some trial-and-error before you figure out what works for you. Just know that the sooner you stop using tobacco, the better — for your lungs and your overall well-being.