Harder To Quit Smoking Than Quit Drinking?

Patient Expert

It's been said that quitting smoking is harder than quitting alcohol, cocaine, and other addictions. As a recovered alcoholic and a former smoker, I can tell you from first-hand experience that this was true (at least for me). It was much harder for me to quit smoking than it was for me to quit drinking.

Once I admitted I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable, I was on the road to recovery from alcoholism. This process took a few years, to be sure, but that was because I wasn't yet ready to admit that my life had become unmanageable. For many years I still had illusions that I could control my drinking. After I came to realize that I had no such control - that alcohol would have always control over me after I had that first drink - then I was ready to follow the steps that finally took me to sobriety. That was over 14 years ago and relapse from sobriety has never felt like an option for me.

Quitting Smoking
With smoking, it was more of an unstoppable craving that would arrive over and over again. Whenever I was anxious, bored, excited, sad, or happy, the craving to smoke again would seem to take over regardless of how much I thought was ready to never smoke again.

I would quit for a few days or a few weeks or a few months and then something would happen and I would relapse again. I relapsed so many times I was almost certain it was just not possible for me to quit for good. I lost track of how many times I tried to quit smoking.

I felt like a crazy person when I became possessed by the cravings - my inner voice would say "you don't want this" and then another inner voice would "yes, I do - I really do - I need it and I need it now" However, my desire to be smokefree was great and I never gave up trying to quit.

I think part of the reason it is so difficult to quit has to do with how smoking becomes such an integral part of our lives. It's so much more than a physical addiction - it's an emotional, habitual, comforting refuge. It's something most smokers do upon first waking and right before going to sleep and many times in between. I smoked after meals, while driving, drinking coffee, hanging out with friends, talking on the phone, working on the computer, reading, watching television - the list goes on and on.

In order to quit successfully, we have to figure out how to get past all those habitual responses. We have to break the cycle and get to the point where relapse is no longer an option. This rarely happens the first time we try to quit, and it may not even happen the hundredth time we try. But eventually it will happen.

Even though I wanted to, I knew I would not be able to seriously attempt to quit smoking until after I had quit drinking. I had tried, but every time I had a drink, I would just want to smoke again. Most people cannot drink alcohol while they are trying to quit smoking - our resolve just evaporates. I understand that for nonalcoholics, alcohol may slowly be added back in again after the ex-smoker has some considerable time as an ex-smoker - perhaps even after many months.

Quitting Both Simultaneously?
Once I quit drinking, I was excited about being ready to quit smoking too. But it took me almost five years of trying before I was successful. I would be doing fine and then get a hangnail (or whatever small crisis du jour) and all reason just flew out the window. I was a smoker again. But I would try and try again to become that ex-smoker I dreamed I could become.

One day it was as though I woke up finally ready to quit for good. Of course, I didn't know that it was going to be my last quit attempt until I had strung a number of days together.

Something had clicked for me and I realized I needed to quit if I wanted to see my daughter grow up. I needed to quit if I wanted a healthy life and the possibility of living to a healthy old age. I felt as though I had crossed a threshold and nothing could deter me or cause me to slip. Now it's been over nine years and I never have a craving to smoke. If it even crosses my mind, it is very fleeting and for that I am very grateful.

If you are struggling to quit smoking and suspect you may have a problem with alcohol, I hope you work to resolve the alcohol problem first. But if you think you can quit both at the same time, I have heard you can improve your chances of success in both areas. I wish I had just put both down at the same time all those years ago, but the thinking then was that dealing with one addiction at a time was enough. Current thinking is that removing all addictions at once is a cleaner break and can improve the overall likelihood of success.

If you relapse like I did, I especially hope you never stop quitting, because your next attempt might be your last. That is how it worked for me. It wasn't easy, but it was absolutely possible. Good luck!

To help you get on the path to a smoke-free life, see Anne's article Preparing to Quit Smoking

Anne Mitchell is the author of Give It Up! Stop Smoking for Life