Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

Kicking the Habit: How Many Tries Will it Take?

For most people, the third or fourth time isn’t the charm when it comes to quitting smoking. It may take longer.

jacob richman
The nicotine cessation program at UT Southwestern helped Jacob Richman quit smoking — and stay smoke-free.

Jacob Richman of Bedford, Texas, says his number was nine. That’s how many times he tried to quit smoking before he finally gave up his pack-a-day habit for good.

Mr. Richman’s story isn’t uncommon. There are 34 million adults in the U.S. who smoke, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and about 70% say they want to quit. Surveys of former smokers noted that they tried to quit an average of six times before succeeding, and one study found it could take 30 or more tries before quitting for a year.

It’s easy to slip up and have a cigarette or two.  Don’t look at these multiple quit attempts as failures or major setbacks. Every time you try to quit, you learn more about your triggers and cravings and what nicotine withdrawal feels like. And you discover techniques that might help you quit for good.

Track Your Triggers 

Mr. Richman learned that quitting cold turkey wasn’t effective for him, so he turned to the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center’s nicotine cessation program.

One of the many things he says he learned during the program was the importance of tracking his smoking. “This was huge. I saw all kinds of patterns,” he says. (Smokfree.gov provides several apps that can help track smoking patterns.)

For instance, Mr. Richman found he would light up with his first cup of coffee in the morning, after meals, and whenever he started driving. Knowing those triggers, he was able to find substitute behaviors, such as chewing gum while driving and eating a banana while he had his coffee. Those changes, and using a prescription nicotine cessation aid, helped make his ninth attempt at quitting the one that stuck.

Anticipate Your Cravings

When you quit smoking – whether it’s the first try or the 15th – you will almost certainly continue to crave cigarettes. Your brain is addicted to nicotine, so it will take time to break free from that learned behavior. Cravings typically last five to 10 minutes, so make a plan for how you can weather that time and intense feeling.

Keep your mouth and hands busy. Many former smokers suck on hard candy, chew gum, or drink water. Stress balls, fidget toys, or even rubber bands can also be effective ways to occupy your hands. Distracting yourself by reading a book, playing an online game, or calling or texting a friend can help, too.

Leaning on friends and family who support your efforts, and seeking guidance from health professionals at nicotine cessation programs such as the one at UT Southwestern, can be the keys to helping you stay smoke-free for good. 

"A relapse after quitting smoking isn’t a failure. It takes most smokers multiple attempts before they quit for good. But with every attempt, you learn what helps you stay away from cigarettes and what triggers your cravings."

Learn more about the nicotine cessation program.