People All Around Us Quit Addictions
In spite of what the government and treatment programs tell us, we all know that many people escape addictions without treatment. How do we know? Because so many of us, our friends, and our loved ones have quit addictions, including the most common drug addiction, smoking. You have heard, and no doubt believe, that smoking is an addiction. But you may feel it’s not an addiction like heroin addiction or cocaine addiction or alcoholism. However, those in the best position to know—alcoholics and drug addicts who smoke—rate smoking at the top of the list of hardest addictions to quit.
Yet, around 90 percent of addicted smokers who quit do so without any kind of treatment. This percentage of smoking self-quitters has gone down slightly since the 1980s, since so many medical treatments for quitting (i.e., nicotine gums and patches) are promoted endlessly on television and other media. But self-quitters smokers are still the large majority of ex-smokers. You can prove this by asking a group of middle-aged people if any of them has quit smoking, and then asking how many did so through any form of treatment (like a nicotine patch).
I do such “experiments” all the time. For instance, I lecture groups of alcoholism/addiction counselors, people who swear that the only way addicts can recover is through going to treatment and joining AA or another twelve-step group like they did. I first ask them, “What is the toughest drug addiction to quit?” The audience, virtually in one voice, shouts out “nicotine” or “cigarettes.” “How many of you have quit?” I inquire. Often a majority raise their hands. Then I ask, “How many of you quit smoking because of treatment or joining a support group?”
In rooms of hundreds of people who work in the treatment field and have quit smoking, never more than a handful have ever said they quit with formal treatment. “Wait a minute,” I deadpan. “You people are too radical for me. You tell people all the time that they can’t quit addictions on their own. Yet you—a group of highly experienced counselors, many of whom have quit more than one addiction yourselves—tell me you quit the toughest addiction without treatment.”
In a further development, in 2012 leading smoking researchers checked to see whether people who quit cigarettes did better with nicotine replacements (like gum or patches). They did no better than those who quit without the drug replacement. And the worst smokers (the most addicted) were twice as likely to relapse when they relied on such medical interventions as those who quit cold turkey!
How Uncle Ozzie Quit Smoking
So how do so many people quit the toughest of all drugs? Let’s examine the remarkable story of my Uncle Ozzie. Ozzie was born in Russia in 1915 but came to the United States as a small child. As a teenager he developed an addiction to smoking. Outwardly calm, Ozzie did not have obvious reasons for smoking. Nonetheless, he continued to smoke into the early 1960s. But Ozzie quit smoking in 1963, the year before the surgeon general’s 1964 report making clear that cigarettes cause cancer.
I didn’t actually notice my uncle had quit until years after the fact, when I saw him at a family gathering when I was home from school, after I became interested in the question of addiction. I asked him, “Ozzie, didn’t you used to smoke?” Ozzie then told me his story.
He began smoking at the age of eighteen and continued smoking for thirty years. Ozzie described his smoking as “a horrible habit”—he smoked four packs a day of unfiltered Pall Malls. He kept a cigarette burning constantly at his workbench (Ozzie was a radio and TV repairman). He described how his fingers were stained a permanent yellow. But, he said, until the day he quit, he had never even considered giving it up. On that day the price of a pack of cigarettes rose from thirty to thirty-five cents. While eating lunch with a group of fellow employees, Ozzie went to the cigarette machine to purchase a pack. A woman co-worker said, “Look at Ozzie—if they raised the price of smokes to a dollar, he’d pay them. He’s a sucker for the tobacco companies!”
Ozzie replied, “You’re right—I’m going to quit.”
The woman, also a smoker, said, “Can I have that pack of cigarettes you just bought?” Ozzie answered, “What, and waste thirty-five cents?” He smoked that pack and never smoked again. A few years ago, Ozzie died. He was over ninety years old.
Why did my uncle Ozzie quit? To understand that, you’d have to understand what kind of person he was. Ozzie was a union activist and shop steward. Adamantly left-wing, he was a man who lived by his beliefs. It was Ozzie’s job to stand up for any worker sanctioned by the company. As a result, he believed, he was punished for his activism by being sent out to the worst parts of the city on television repair calls.
Why did Uncle Ozzie quit smoking that one day, after thirty years of constant, intense smoking? He had never previously considered quitting, but less than twenty-five words thrown out by a blue-collar colleague somehow caused him to drop the addiction. We will return to this question in a subsequent blog, but for now it is enough to recognize that he did it.
Without the aid of a support group or medicated patch, Ozzie overcame his smoking addiction. And fifty million other American ex-smokers have done the same thing.