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Made a New Year’s Resolution to Quit? Tips to Stop Smoking during the Pandemic

Frank Leone
Frank T. Leone, MD, MS

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, making healthy lifestyle changes may look a little different. Those who resolved to focus on fitness this year may find themselves seeking alternatives to a traditional gym, and the landscape has also changed for people who want to stop smoking or vaping in 2022.

“Over the course of the pandemic we’ve seen many patients who have relapsed because they’re stuck in the house and stressed out,” said Frank T. Leone, MD, MS, director of Penn Medicine’s Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program. “As we head into the thick of winter with surges of COVID-19, these restrictions don’t seem to be going anywhere, but there’s still a lot of hope for those who want to make the decision to quit smoking.”

The first step for patients wanting to go tobacco free is to view the chance as a process with a series of steps rather than a switch they can flip on or off. For results that stick, Leone recommends targeting the underlying compulsion to inhale nicotine.

“Nicotine disguises itself as a safety signal in the part of the brain where our survival instincts live, which is why people who smoke will feel a sense of relaxation, and why the prospect of quitting can feel like a threat, or overwhelming anxiety,” Leone said.

Frank Leone and Tierney Fisher
Dr. Leone works with nurse practitioner, Tierney Fisher to discuss treatment for the day’s patients.

That’s where a health care provider is key. Not only will they be able to discuss medications that are available to control the compulsion to smoke or vape, but that step will also set the stage for the rest of the work to build on. While attending group meetings, seeing a counselor, or engaging in online forums can be helpful, Leone tells his patients to go one step further.

“I suggest tailoring a plan to the person’s specific needs, which means looking for resources that are less like pre-set recipes and more like individualized coaching,” he said. “That way, you have someone helping you overcome hurdles in a way that makes sense for your personal situation and needs, because sometimes relapses happen, and that’s ok. I encourage patients to learn from it and not give up.”

Lastly, it may take time for a person to adjust to life without nicotine, and that’s why many benefit from staying on medication treatments for at least six months after their last puff. Long-term nicotine exposure changes the brain, and the practice of extending treatment gives it time to heal, increasing the chances that a person can stick to their resolve to quit.

The pandemic hasn’t been all bad for all smoking cessation patients. Leone said some people found that being stuck inside a non-smoking house, or being more reluctant to go to the store was the push they needed to decide to quit. While this year has presented different challenges for different people, Leone’s enduring advice remains the same.

“We maintain a positive, supportive environment that does not rely on fear or shame to motivate smokers to quit,” Leone shared. “Quitting isn’t about willpower. It’s about finding a personalized strategy and acting on it in stages.”

If you or someone you know is in need of support, call 888-PENN-STOP to learn more about Penn Medicine’s Smoking Treatment Clinic and community Quit Smoking Comfortably programs.

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