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The best way to quit any bad habit
A new study about the best way to quit smoking has implications for anyone trying to break a bad habit. Whether you're trying to quit cigarettes or sugar, don't try to do it gradually just stop. - photo by Jennifer Graham
A new study about the best way to quit smoking has implications for anyone trying to break a bad habit. Whether you're trying to quit cigarettes or sugar, don't try to wean yourself off it gradually just stop.

As NPR reported, researchers at the University of Oxford studied 697 smokers who were trying to quit. Half quit their pack-a-day habit cold turkey. The others gradually reduced the number of cigarettes they smoked over two weeks; first going to half a pack each day, then a quarter, then none.

"If you're training for a marathon, you wouldn't expect to turn up and just be able to run it. And I think people see that for smoking as well. They think, 'Well, if I gradually reduce it's almost practice,'" researcher Nicola Lindson-Hawley told Rae Ellen Bichell of NPR.

But that was less likely to work.

Six months later, those who quit cold turkey were more successful, according to the study published March 15 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

More than one-fifth of those who quit abruptly were still not smoking after six weeks, compared with one-seventh of those who quit gradually.

The success rates were similar whether participants had chosen their method of quitting, or been assigned it against their wishes.

Lindson-Hawley speculated the smokers who cut down in stages suffered cravings and withdrawal symptoms even before they quit altogether, making the process more difficult for longer.

Of course, the majority of people in both groups succumbed to smoking before the six-week check-in, even though they had significant support: nicotine patches before quitting, nicotine-replacement aids like gum or nasal sprays and talk therapy with a nurse.

Bichell spoke with Dr. Gabriela Ferreira, an internist at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey, who noted that few people are able to quit smoking the first time they try.

"When you can quote a specific number, like a fifth of the patients were able to quit, that's a compelling number, and I think that translates to the patient. It gives them the encouragement, I think, to really go for it," Ferreira said.

This isn't the first study to indicate that going cold turkey is better than quitting smoking gradually. A 2007 survey of 8,000 smokers in four countries reached the same conclusion, that those who quit cold turkey were nearly twice as likely to abstain for at least a month.

That was a telephone survey that relied on respondents' truthfulness, however. The Oxford researchers were less trusting.

"To double check that people were being honest, the researchers measured how much carbon monoxide they exhaled. A higher concentration of carbon monoxide meant they'd likely been smoking," NPR reported.

The results of the Oxford study may help people struggling with other bad health habits as well. The Daniel Plan diet website started by megachurch pastor Rick Warren urges people to quit sugar abruptly, saying it's the best way to eliminate cravings.
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