Should You Quit Smoking Cold Turkey?

By May Wilkerson 06/29/15

Quitting cold turkey is still the most popular method despite its lack of success.

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So you’re trying to quit smoking, but should you go cold turkey?

Most experts and doctors say no. A combination of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), prescription medication, and counseling is generally thought to have the highest rate of long-term success. But cold turkey is still the most popular quitting method in the U.S., according to an article in Medical Daily.

Smoking is going out of style in a big way. Only 20% of American adults are lighting up today, compared to nearly half the country back in 1964, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. The decline is largely due to fewer people picking up the habit, but a sizable number of Americans have managed to quit successfully. Many of these folks quit cold turkey, without help from nicotine substitutes, medication, or therapy.

But the rate of staying quit for long periods of time is as low as 3-5% among those who use this method, according to Medical Daily. Just because cold turkey is the most common approach, doesn’t make it the best one.

Some people may have an easier time quitting cold turkey for genetic reasons. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, 20% of the population have a genetic mutation that helps them produce more anandamide, a chemical that tends to make people less anxious, less fearful, and less likely to enjoy marijuana. People who possess this mutation may be less prone to cigarette addiction and have an easier time quitting.

Also, a significant portion of U.S. smokers are “social smokers,” sometimes called “chippers,” who for health, social, or financial reasons simply light up only occasionally, maybe once or twice a day, or less.

But why do some “chippers” become addicted, and not others? It may be a numbers game. “You become a smoker when you smoke 100 cigarettes in your lifetime," said Dr. Laura Beirut, professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who has studied the genetics of smokers. "Past this threshold of 100 cigarettes, 85% become daily smokers."

But there may also be other genetic factors at play. Beirut and her colleagues uncovered a region on the 15th chromosome, the “nicotinic receptor gene cluster,” that may significantly impact someone’s degree of nicotine addiction, as well as their chances of developing smoking-related illnesses.

"Smokers with the high risk genetic variants have a three-fold increased likelihood of responding to pharmacologic cessation treatments, compared to smokers with the low risk genetic variants," concluded a 2012 study co-authored by Beirut in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Quitting may be harder for people with these “high risk genetic variants,” but it isn’t impossible. Though cold turkey does seem to work for some people, experts say reaching out for help, through counseling, or signing up for free nicotine replacement therapy programs, is the best way to go.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.