Quitting drug, alcohol and smoking addictions: Which is easiest?
I’m a psych student studying addiction. I wanted to get your thoughts on a question that came up in our class today: is it harder to quit alcohol, drugs or smoking?
I know everyone’s experience with addiction is different, but I’m curious if there are any general trends when comparing these substances.
Given the addictiveness of nicotine and the health risks of smoking, as well as the social and health issues from alcohol abuse, I’d really value your opinion on this. Are there any physical, mental, or social factors that make quitting one substance harder than the other? And do you think treatment approaches should be different for people dealing with tobacco or alcohol addiction?
Your input would mean a lot to me as I try to understand addiction better.
Hi Josh, Good question!
Let’s start with the basics:
1. Every study examining Americans’ drinking, drug use and smoking finds that most people quit addiction over time.
Each time this is discovered through a large government survey, the results are announced with amazement. Who knew that people could quit substance addictions?
Harvard psychologist John Kelly told us this again recently:
“Most Americans who experience alcohol and drug addiction survive. They recover and go on to live full and healthy lives.”
Kelly, who teaches addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School, co-authored a peer-reviewed study published last year that found roughly 22.3 million Americans — more than 9% of adults — live in recovery after some form of substance-use disorder.
A separate study published by the CDC and the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2020 found 3 out of 4 people who experience addiction eventually recover.
“So that’s huge, you know, 75 percent,” Kelly said. “I think it kind of goes against our cultural perception that people never get better.”
2. Why do people quit addictions? According to Kelly, “it’s the norm.”
Why is it the norm? Because, for most people, life proceeds and offers them better opportunities that require them to give up their addictions, such as jobs, families, self-respect, a normal life.
Quitting is the norm as Gene Heyman reveals every government study ever conducted has shown.
3. Why are we unaware that this is true?
Kelly explains why this fact remains hidden:
“We are literally surrounded by people who are in recovery from a substance-use disorder, but we don’t know it.”
Of course people may struggle for a time. But eventually they usually align their lives with their values. It’s a process — and we at LPP are able to help people through it. Heyman elaborates on this myth:
“According to the idea that addiction is a chronic relapsing disease, remission is at most a temporary state. Either addicts never stop using drugs, or if they do stop, remission is short lived.”
But that’s not true.
4. How long does it take to quit various addictions, from cocaine to alcohol to cigarettes?
Heyman found that the shortest addictions were the ones we think of as most perilous! He discovered that the half-life (the point at which a majority quit) for cocaine dependence was four years, but for alcohol dependence it was 16 years.
Of course, think about it. If you want to get normal, it’s tough to be an illicit drug user. You can carry on drinking more easily. I have described this process for LPP members and other readers.
By this equation, smoking was the longest lived addiction, with the largest percentage (though still only a small minority) continuing into old age.
But that too has changed. Have you noticed that smoking has become a very arduous chore lately?
Going into the 1980s, roughly 40 percent of Americans smoked cigarettes. In 2005 the figure was 20 percent. That figure is now around ten percent.
5. Okay, what’s the secret to getting over an addiction?
Of course, while most people quit addictions, some (a very small group) continue. According to Heyman,
“although most dependent cocaine users remitted before age 30, about 5 percent remained heavy cocaine users well into their forties.”
The answer’s sitting there in front of us, isn’t it? Some people don’t acquire the counterbalancing forces in life that motivate their quitting.
And THAT is the problem–not cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes, whatever.
In LPP we focus people on their genuine motivations—based on their values—for quitting whatever addictions they are having trouble shaking.
It’s not complicated, although it does sometimes take some time and effort. But we know how to do it!