Along with most other people of my generation, I grew up in a society that accepted cigarette smoking as normal for anyone over the age of about 18. We’ve learned a lot about risks to our health since then! At that time, it was also thought that to be healthy, you needed to eat what was called a good breakfast. In our house, that meant fried egg, fried bacon, and bread fried in animal fat left over from the Sunday Roast. Both my parents smoked, and like lots of other people of their generation, they both died of heart disease before the age of 60.
My parents smoked about 20 cigarettes a day, and packets of open cigarettes were always left lying around in the home. When I was about 13 years old, I started stealing the occasional cigarette from an open packet. I didn’t count this as stealing of course, just helping myself. But I did it in secret, and I made sure I only ‘helped myself’ from a nearly full packet, so one cigarette wouldn’t be missed.
I know, I know! Behaviour is complicated, and we are all very good at finding excuses that allow us to feel ok, while still doing something we know we shouldn’t be doing.
The First Steps into Addiction
I’d go with my school friend, down to the woods, where we’d build a small fire, pull up a log, and smoke our illegal, stolen, tobacco. I didn’t really enjoy it all in the beginning, but it was ‘against the rules’, and a new experience, and it was bound up with the ritual of going to the woods, building a fire and sitting around smoking. Sometimes we heated up a can of beans to make it even more like a camping adventure.
In fact, that situation had all the starting ingredients of almost every potential addiction there is. But, like every other teenager on the planet, that only added to it’s attraction.
By the time I was 18, I was smoking regularly and needed to know that a cigarette was available at all times. I particularly needed to know there would be a cigarette available for when I woke up every the morning. By now I was happily smoking a pack a day. I did this for 15 years, and during all of that time, I knew I didn’t want to even try to quit. Why?
Stage 2: Hooked
At that stage, what I thought of as the ‘benefits’ to me outweighed my idea of the ‘costs’ of smoking. My so-called benefits were: I knew I ‘needed’ the cigarettes, I really enjoyed smoking, and I could afford to do it, so why shouldn’t I smoke? Also, all my friends smoked and they never tried to quit either. Smoking was socially acceptable, and was even encouraged by the rituals of offering cigarettes to friends, and having my cigarettes lit by desirable young men.
Around that time, rumors started to circulate suggesting that smoking probably wasn’t good for you, but the real magnitude of the health consequences of smoking, still wasn’t fully understood.
Of course the tobacco industry were spending millions of advertising dollars pushing cigarettes, and trying to manipulate everyone into smoking their particular brand.
There were glossy advertisements everywhere to convince me that everyone who wanted to be successful, famous, and sophisticated should smoke brand X, and everyone who wanted to be a gorgeous sex kitten, galloping along a beach on a white horse with a handsome Mr Right chasing her, needed to smoke brand Y. I was surrounded by messages that told me it was sophisticated and ‘cool’ to smoke.
The other side of the ledger, the costs side, was so minimal in my mind at that time that I had no reason to even think about giving up smoking, which meant I had no wish, reason, or desire, to quit. So, of course, I continued to smoke.
I knew I was addicted, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care that I ‘might’ get lung cancer later in life because, like everyone else, I thought that would never happen to me – besides I’d be really old by then and probably wouldn’t mind that much anyway. You’ve got to die of something – right?
I didn’t care that it cost money, because I could afford it. I didn’t care that other people might have health problems caused by my smoking, because no one knew about that then. I didn’t have children who needed me to set a good example for them.
I didn’t have friends who disapproved of my cigarette addiction – in fact we reinforced each other’s addiction, both socially and in private, in exactly the same collaborative way that all addicted people do – and it doesn’t much matter whether it’s alcohol, other drugs, or gambling. In those days, I was just like everyone else – society in those days accepted cigarette addiction as normal, so of course, everyone smoked.
Stage 3: Continuing To Smoke In Spite of Increasing Negative Factors
By the early 1990’s it had begun to be clear that smoking really was a serious health hazard, and not only to the person smoking, but also to people around them, and particularly, for their children. But I still didn’t want to try to give up.
Cigarettes started to become really expensive, but I still didn’t want to try to give up. I started to roll my own when at home, to make my addiction more affordable
Work places started to put restrictions on smoking, so smoking was only allowed in your lunch break or coffee break. This was difficult for me at first, but I still didn’t try to give up. However, I noticed something very surprising at that time: I got used to not smoking for 3 or 4 hours at a stretch, which I never thought I’d be able to do. And in fact, after a couple of weeks, it wasn’t even difficult to do. I still continued to smoke, but, for the first time, it made me think.
The Trigger Event!
I would possibly still be happily puffing away today if things hadn’t dramatically changed to shift the balance of my ‘For’ motives compared with my ‘Against’ motives in my own personal life.
One day, a man at work that I really wanted to like me (code for, I had a hopeless crush on) finally came up and started talking to me. I had spent months, willing this to happen – and then it did! After a couple of minutes, he said, “Do you smoke? That’s a really disgusting habit! It makes you smell!” I was so embarrassed and humiliated, that on that very day, I decided I was going to try to quit.
So what had happened there? Something had happened that had suddenly shifted the balance of my personal For and Against arguments and motives. Something had happened that drastically changed the way I thought and felt. A bomb had been exploded in my psyche.
Suddenly the ‘Cost’ side of my ledger had increased dramatically, totally outweighing the previous, personal ‘Benefits’ side of my ledger.
No amount of rational health arguments, economic factors, or negative influences in my work environment had made me want to give up my addiction, but a powerful, and very personal experience had struck right at the heart of my smoking behavior. It had totally changed my previous ‘enjoyment’ to feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and lowered self-esteem. He made me feel dirty.
Why Was This Trigger Event So Powerful?
What made this experience particularly devastating (and useful) for me, was the fact that it had precisely targeted the one thing that was most important to me at the time: to impress this man with my attractiveness and desirability. And clever old Robert had managed to link this directly to my smoking addiction – bang on the negative ‘against’ side of my motives for smoking.
It was a humiliating linkage of cause and effect, which exactly targeted my addiction – a powerful direct hit. I’ve always been very grateful to that Robert, who, as you might have guessed already, turned out to be very unsuitable as a boy friend, in so many ways!
To see an analysis of how Robert’s remark was so powerful in motivating me to quit smoking, see the article How Do We Decide to Change Our Behavior.