If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. In spite of the popularity of that particular adage, most adults don’t want to try difficult things more than once. We want success on Round 1, and if we’re not acing it by Round 2 or 3, we pretty much just give up. Young kids, on the other hand, cheerfully keep up the effort. If they fall over when learning to walk, they’ll try a hundred more times until they can totter across the room. When they tumble off the bike, they dust off the dungarees and give it another go and then another and another. Not that they don’t get frustrated, but the point is, they instinctually understand that it takes many attempts to achieve the goal.
It also takes many attempts to break habits, and in fact, it may require nearly the same level of persistence needed as when learning to walk. A new study shows just how true this is in the case of quitting smoking.1 Doyle, Kathryn. “Smokers may try to quit 30 times before it sticks.” 21 June 2016. Reuters. 23 June 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-smoking-quit-attempts-idUSKCN0Z72PL As everyone who has ever smoked or who has lived with a smoker knows, quitting isn’t easy. While most adults expect that they’ll be able to exert willpower and quit the nasty habit with maybe a little help from a patch or a hypnotherapist, new research shows that, in fact, it takes a whole lot more before a smoker quits for good.
Until now, data has suggested that before quitting smoking, the average person needs to work past anywhere from three to seven failed attempts. This was verified by a recent Gallup Poll that determined that the typical American smoker takes six attempts to quit.2 McKnight, Zoe. “It can take 30 tries for some to quit smoking, study finds.” 10 June 2016. The Star. 24 June 2016. http://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/news_research/2016/06/10/it-can-take-30-tries-for-some-to-quit-smoking-study-finds.html A similar Canadian survey concluded that Canadians take 3.2 attempts. It would seem that Canadians either have more willpower or live more in denial. In either case, for those trying to quit, even three times going through withdrawal symptoms and then backsliding can be extremely discouraging.
But it gets worse.
According to new research from the University of Toronto in Canada, it actually takes many, many more times than previously thought for a smoker to kick the habit for good–an average of 30 serious attempts, in fact. The researchers came to that conclusion after following 1300 adult smokers for three years. At the outset of the study, the smokers reported how many previous quit attempts they recalled. Then, every six months, they reported the number of times they had tried to quit again within that time period.
The researchers themselves were surprised that the actual number of quit attempts was so high. Why did Gallup and many previous reports show “only” a handful of failed attempts, when this study found the actual numbers to be much higher? Because, according to the researchers, the previous studies relied on self-reported data at a particular point in time. The new study instead followed people over time, instead of asking them to rely on their memories. “People [whether American or Canadian] are very bad at remembering over their whole lifetimes,” said study director Michael Chaiton. Plus, in the previous studies, many who reported that they had quit relapsed at some point after the survey. In this study, those who reported that they had stopped smoking had to have gone an entire year without any cigarettes to count as having successfully quit.
Is 30 attempts the magic formula that ensures the quit will stick? And are 30 attempts required? Not so, according to study director Dr. Michael Chaiton. “There are many people who are able to, and do, quit on their first attempt or in the first few,” he says. “There are people who are good at many things, some are good at quitting smoking.”
The reverse side of that coin, which Dr. Chaiton does not mention, is that some people are very bad at quitting. If 30 is average and some quit after one attempt, that means that others have to try many more times than 30. Remember, this research only covered three years, meaning that those who hadn’t yet succeeded by the end of the study might undertake another 30 attempts before (if) they manage to snuff the butt for good. One person in the survey reported 216 quit attempts. On the other hand, those with lighter smoking habits quit more easily than heavy smokers did.
Experts advise that it might be wise for counselors and medical care professionals to let patients know it can take multiple attempts and modalities and a long timeline to negotiate a successful quit, given the new data. If patients think that success means quitting after just a few attempts, they might become discouraged after a succession of failures and assume they’ll never succeed; but if they know that it’s normal to fail many, many times, they might be more open to trying again and experimenting with a variety of treatments.
While it’s good news that even those who have been trying for years and who fail one time after another aren’t necessarily lost causes, the bad news is that during those intervening years, they’re damaging their health. As Dr. John Hughes of the University of Vermont Medical School points out, “The problem with taking, say, 20 times to quit, is that this may take 10 years and it’s not only important to quit but it’s important to quit while you are younger.”
And as astonishing as it is that smokers have to be so extraordinarily persistent to kick the habit, it seems that the route to stopping smoking is both shorter and more likely to succeed than the path to giving up bad eating habits. Surveys show that the average woman spends 31 years of her lifetime on a diet, the average man 28 years.3 “Average woman spends 31 years on a diet, researchers say.” 24 January 2007. The Daily Mail. 24 June 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-430913/Average-woman-spends-31-years-diet-researchers-say.html The average diet lasts five-and-a-half weeks before the old habits kick in; but then, when the pants get too tight, the diet starts again so that the average woman is dieting six months out of every year. Apparently, the lure of excess food is more powerful than the lure of a smoke.
|↑1||Doyle, Kathryn. “Smokers may try to quit 30 times before it sticks.” 21 June 2016. Reuters. 23 June 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-smoking-quit-attempts-idUSKCN0Z72PL|
|↑2||McKnight, Zoe. “It can take 30 tries for some to quit smoking, study finds.” 10 June 2016. The Star. 24 June 2016. http://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/news_research/2016/06/10/it-can-take-30-tries-for-some-to-quit-smoking-study-finds.html|
|↑3||“Average woman spends 31 years on a diet, researchers say.” 24 January 2007. The Daily Mail. 24 June 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-430913/Average-woman-spends-31-years-diet-researchers-say.html|