Great American Smokeout: How to kick the habit

Providing effective ways to quit for good

The Great American Smokeout sponsored by the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society is the third Thursday in November.

This national event not only challenges people to quit using tobacco for a day; it provides an opportunity for health care institutions to help people in their community who are contemplating giving up their cigarettes to successfully quit smoking.

According to the American Cancer Society, this is accomplished by educating smokers on effective ways to quit for good. Steps include selecting a date to stop smoking and creating a plan to support the effort. The plan may include the use of nicotine replacement products, enrolling in a smoking cessation program, joining a support group, or using self-help materials.

Giving up cigarettes is very difficult, says Virginia Reichert, NP, director of the Center for Tobacco Control for the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset, NY. This health care institution uses the Great American Smokeout to reach hundreds of people who are contemplating quitting smoking by holding an open house on the day of the Smokeout.

During the open house, smokers are introduced to the free six-week smoking cessation program, which is offered at the center as a community service, and about 600 people usually enroll.

Smokers are not encouraged to stop smoking on the day of the Smokeout, but to wait until the class starts, which usually is within a week. That’s because preparation is part of the curriculum. If people aren’t prepared, they usually light up a cigarette within a few hours of quitting, says Reichert.

"The key to our success is that we really prepare class participants. We spend two hours of class time in preparation, and we give them homework," says Reichert.

Smokers are taught to practice being a nonsmoker before their quit date so they know what to expect when they actually quit. For example, if they smoke while driving, they are told to smoke the cigarette before they get into their car so they can see how it feels to drive without a cigarette. If they are use to smoking while on the telephone, they are told to wait until they are off the phone before having a cigarette.

During the first two weeks of class participants are still smokers, making one-third of the class time the preparation period. The quit date is 48 hours before the third class meeting.

Once smokers quit, nicotine replacement products, such as gum or the patch, are used to control withdrawal symptoms and class participants also learn techniques for dealing with cravings. For example, students learn to take several deep breaths, leave the room immediately, drink a lot of water, or brush their teeth to help them resist giving in to a craving. If everything fails, they are told to call the Center for Tobacco Control.

"They have a step-by-step plan, and they are supported through the whole process. Quitting smoking is not a defining moment; it is a process because people slip up and they have to learn not to beat themselves up over it," says Reichert.

Societal changes

There are many reasons why people benefit from kicking the cigarette habit, according to the American Cancer Society. Smoking is a risk factor for several types of cancer, including lung, mouth, voice box, bladder, kidney, pancreas, cervix, and stomach. It also can cause progressive lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smokers have twice the risk of dying of heart attacks as nonsmokers, and smoking is a major risk factor for peripheral vascular disease.

People who quit at age 35 live on average 8½ years longer than those who don’t stop smoking.

For more than 25 years, the Great American Smokeout has brought attention to the health risks of smoking in addition to methods for beating the habit. It also has helped to provide a climate for social change, according to the American Cancer Society. In 1977, Berkeley, CA, became the first community to limit smoking in restaurants and other public places, and this ordinance has now become commonplace in many states. In 1990, a federal smoking ban was implemented on domestic flights of six hours or less.

The California Division of the American Cancer Society sponsored the first Smokeout in 1976. In 1977 the event went national. The idea came about when a Massachusetts resident asked people to give up smoking for a day in 1971 and donate their cigarette money to the local high school. 

For more information on the Great American Smokeout, contact:

  • The American Cancer Society, Telephone: (800) 227-2345. Web site: