Smokers find it hard to quit, relapses are common

Maria, 38, took up smoking again two years after she quit. Pavlos, 49, slipped back into the habit after six years, his third attempt to kick the habit. Stella, 28, began again four years after quitting, again, not for the first time. One wonders why it is so hard to stop smoking, and why it is so easy to take it up again after many years of «clean living.» The facts appear to confirm the adage «once a smoker, always a smoker.» Although there are now far more people in Greece who want to quit than there were a decade ago, the percentage of those who succeed is still very small. The director of Athens University Medical School’s Smoking Cessation Center at the Evgenideio hospital, Dr Christina Gratsiou, says that while there are over 300 people on the center’s waiting list, the rate of success for treatment methods (such as bupropion, which acts on the central nervous system to prevent withdrawal symptoms, or else nicotine substitutes) was 60 percent. About 30 percent of those treated eventually relapsed; most have made four or five attempts and are usually among the heaviest smokers. According to Gratsiou, the reason Greeks have such a hard time quitting smoking is chiefly the fact that, in Greece, cigarettes are everywhere. «The truth is that, in Greece, it is very difficult to give up smoking. Many people relapse because bans on smoking in the workplace have not been imposed and because there are smokers in the immediate family,» she explained. Moreover, the self-confidence some people feel on lighting up soon leads to the purchase of one’s first packet. According to Gratsiou, smoking is a chronic disease that sometimes recurs. «It is as if someone is suffering from a gastric ulcer that at any moment can flare up and require treatment. That is how we should see smoking. That is, even if someone quits smoking, he or she is still a smoker. But the longer they can stay off it, the greater the gain.» Quitting the habit is different for everyone and the cure has to be tailor-made, but there are some general rules. Gratsiou says that quitting smoking involves a changed lifestyle, including a healthier diet and exercise, that is, people should try to limit stress in other ways. At the same time, they should focus on the fact that smoking is highly hazardous activity. «It is also important for a person to try and quit when he or she does not have too many other problems,» Gratsiou said. So what can one expect after that «one last cigarette»? «Withdrawal symptoms usually last 48-72 hours. They peak again about two weeks later and then fade completely after four to six weeks. It is a long period, which shows just how great the addiction is, psychologically as well as physically.»