Samantha has been a smoker for more than 15 years, ever since she went to visit a friend in Spain. Moreover, when she met her boyfriend four years ago while working at a bar, they got to know each other smoking out back. Then coronavirus hit, and they both had nothing to do but smoke, drink and panic. “We went hard the first few months of quarantine drinking and smoking the stress and uncertainty away,” says the 35-year-old from Chicago. “The apocalypse vibe certainly fueled some of it.”
As studies claimed that smoking may have protective effects against COVID-19 started to surface, Samantha thought they were probably bullshit (many experts have since confirmed her skepticism), but she welcomed any excuse to descend further into nicotine-fueled nihilism. Soon, however, she started feeling shitty all the time. “I couldn’t tell if I was hungover or having COVID symptoms. Smoking definitely made my hangovers worse,” she tells me. “The way we were living just wasn’t sustainable.”
And so, about a month ago, Samantha and her boyfriend decided to quit.
According to Natalie Clays, director at Allen Carr’s Easyway, an international smoking cessation program based on the book Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, Samantha’s trajectory is consistent with what she’s seen from her clients. “When lockdown first kicked in, bookings stopped and the phone didn’t ring,” Clays explains. “But the moment there was a bit of a reprieve and life getting back to ‘normal’ again, there was a surge of people wanting to quit.”
The data bears this out. One survey in the U.K. found that a million people have quit smoking since the pandemic hit and nearly half a million have tried. Research from the University College London similarly reveals that more people quit smoking in June than any other month since 2007. Likewise, another study of smokers in Australia and the U.K. showed that the proportion of people intending to quit smoking increased from 10 percent to 29 percent. Although there are no comparable American studies, the decline of smokers here from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 13.7 percent in 2018 suggests a comparable pattern. Whether it’s for health, finances or relationships, more smokers than ever before are making the move to quit.
In some ways, quitting has been easier for Samantha because of quarantine. She has more time to eat healthy and sleep, two forms of self-care that have been found to help with nicotine withdrawal. Better yet, she’s no longer working in bars, or drinking at them late at night — something that always makes her want to smoke. At the same time, she’s never been so stressed out and still feels the same uncertainty that nearly doubled her cigarette intake at the start of quarantine. “It’s been a mixed bag, but I have to say, the patches have helped a lot,” Samantha explains, admitting to a few puffs here and there. “I haven’t gone completely cold turkey, but I’m smoking so much less.”
Steven Rosenberg, a hypnotist and founder of Quit Now, agrees that “quarantine may be the best time to stop smoking,” but the process still shouldn’t be underestimated. “Nicotine is 10 times more addictive than heroin,” Rosenberg warns. That may sound hyperbolic, but it’s true — nicotine is considered to be the most addictive narcotic. Obviously, kicking it isn’t as tough as kicking heroin — i.e., heroin withdrawals are much more intense — but nicotine withdrawals aren’t without their share of fatigue, headaches, coughing, constipation, weight gain, insomnia and anxiety, all of which could be exacerbated in quarantine (and can last much longer than the three to five days it takes for your body to rid itself of nicotine).
To that end, Nate, a 29-year-old youth basketball coach in San Antonio who started smoking when he was 16, had awful withdrawal symptoms the last two times he’s tried to quit. When he was 22, he made it nine days and felt fine, but then he joined a pickup basketball game with his friends, where he became dizzy and felt like he was going to pass out. He quit playing, hydrated and went home to shower, have a healthy dinner and get a good night’s sleep. “But I woke up in the middle of the night with cold sweats,” he tells me. “I was freezing yet sweating. I was up for about 30 minutes and couldn’t take it so I went and found a cigarette and smoked it to see if that would help. It felt like I was inhaling relief.”
His second attempt only lasted three days, and he gave up without trying very hard. “I think I was afraid of what happened last time,” he says.
Like Samantha, it was COVID that finally made the difference. But in a completely different way — he contracted it at his daughter’s 6th birthday party the first week of June. Nate was so terrified for his health, he went cold turkey before he even got his test results back, and four months later, he still hasn’t had a smoke. “I was so scared of getting pneumonia or being intubated and everything we’ve been seeing on the news,” Nate says. “But it was only because I was so afraid of getting those things that I stopped smoking.”
Of course, coronavirus isn’t some twisted nicotine patch. No rational person is suggesting someone get sick with a deadly and contagious illness as the impetus to quit smoking. But for ex-smokers like Nate and Samantha, the threat of the virus has given them more motivation to stop than anything else before it. “When I really think about it, I’m proud of myself,” Nate says. “What I’m doing is for the better — regardless if these four months turn into the next 40 years or not.”