One day last week a doctor was interviewed on the "Today Show" about how to stop smoking. The interview was conducted right about now because of all the people who made New Year's resolutions to stop smoking and are now smoking again.

Oh, gushed Jane Pauley, those are such good ideas. . . .

Well, I suppose they sounded like good ideas -- to anybody except anybody who ever tried to stop smoking.

I know, doctors don't want to discourage people from trying to stop, so they soothe and cajole and promise that there, there, you can do it without feeling too bad, you can do it without gaining weight . . . just keep a few carrot sticks handy. . . .

Sure. On the other hand -- and I've been there: two, three packs a day for 25 or so years -- one of the reasons it took me so long to stop was all those good-sounding ideas.

You have to be realistic about it.

It is hard to stop smoking.

It is the second single hardest thing I ever did in my whole life.

I felt like I'd lost my best friend, my family, my husband. Nervous, jumpy, depressed, anxious, headachy, tense. Mean. (I almost did lose my best friend, etc.) Disagreeable! (Ask anybody.) And I got fat to boot. (That's the first hardest thing -- keeping the weight off.) Don't tell ME about carrot sticks, Doctor, M&Ms can help the cigarette urge, maybe. Carrot sticks don't do a thing.

We're talking oral gratification here. And mood lift. Forget carrot sticks.

The problem is, no two people are the same. Carrot sticks actually may work fine for somebody (although I seriously doubt it. The person who can get smoke out of a carrot . . .). But the next person is going to need more help than that.

Smokenders, the commercial behavior-modification program, is one possibility. It may simply work because you've plunked down all that cash ($375 for its 8-week seminar). But even that doesn't always do it. And if you care all that much about money, just make a humongous bet with somebody, preferably somebody you think looks down on you a little anyway.

Negative feedback programs are helpful for some and others may puff out via hypnotism. Then there's Cold Turkey. Or, the way I did it, what you might call Lukewarm Turkey. (I've been clean for nearly five years.)

Motivation: First, you really have to want to stop.

You have to be able to picture all that carbon monoxide replacing all that oxygen in your blood; all that nicotine constricting your blood vessels, raising your blood pressure; all those tars making nice little cancerous beds in your lungs, in your throat, in your mouth; all that secondhand smoke polluting your children's air, worsening their colds, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia. And all those other thousands of substances in cigarette smoke that nobody even knows what they do.

Okay, so let's say now that you're convinced.

Timing: New Year's Eve, when you're feeling a bit warm and euphoric, for whatever reason, is a bad time to decide to stop smoking.

It is a good time, however, to resolve to take the first step: Switch to one of the low-tar/nicotine brands. Don't go whole hog to the ones that are so hard to drag on that you might just as well be smoking a carrot stick. Just move a couple of notches down the nicotine-tar list. They're really NOT much better for you than their big brothers, so don't let yourself smoke more to compensate. (The Surgeon General's report this week concluded that, in effect, they're NOT better than NOTHING, but they are better than doing nothing.)

So don't think you've done enough. Also, don't smoke the whole cigarette. Just take a few puffs and put it out after it's about a third gone. The tars build up so the last drags are the worst.

Keep doing this until you get a chest cold or the flu. (And if you smoke, you're sure to get one sooner rather than later, and some bug is certain to settle in your chest.)

THIS is the time to stop.

Do not smoke mentholated cigarettes for the duration of your cold.

Tell yourself that by the time you are going to want to smoke again, the worst will be over.

Of course this may or may not be true, but by the time you realize it may not be, you've invested so much effort in not smoking that it seems a waste to give up now.


Eat chocolate: Some studies have hinted that it contains a property which eases the pain of a broken heart. When you stop smoking you will feel like you have a broken heart.

Make a commitment to yourself that you won't worry about your weight for at least 10 weeks. By that time the worst of the cigarette withdrawal is over, and you can stop pigging out.

Meanwhile, it is simply asking too much of the average human being to stop smoking and eating at the same time.You may not, in fact, gain weight. Lots of people don't, or do so only temporarily.

Exercise: If you don't exercise regularly, you should, and this is a good time to start something new, something that isn't psychologically linked with lighting a cigarette. If you do exercise regularly already, do it a bit more, and something a little different. Start swimming a couple of times a week, working out, running, whatever. Do it. The positive reinforcement from being able to take a deep breath of what suddenly seems like pure oxygen is amazing.

Support: This may be the most important strategy of all. Make giving up smoking a project with any other smoker or smokers in your household, whether roommate, spouse, parent, child or significant other.

You WILL have support when you are feeling mean, rotten or depressed and you WON'T have anybody to weaken your resolve. (If possible, transmit the chest cold first. That helps with the motivation.)

Cigarettes are more than just psychologically addictive. Why do you want to be addicted to anything? Who's in control, anyway?

You'll know you've beaten it when you stop having the nightmare in which you are smoking five cigarettes at a time, dragging first from one and then from another in an orgy of smoke. You hate yourself because you're smoking and you don't know why you started again anyway. And then you wake up and you're still not smoking. What a relief.

So is it worth going through all this?

When you stop smoking, your respiratory system does clean itself out.

New studies have even shown that lung cancer patients who stop smoking live longer than those who continue to smoke.

So you can undo the damage years of smoking has laid on your system. What that is worth only you can decide.

Finally, here's the one piece of information that I found the most helpful.

It came from a lung association TV commercial: The nicotine urge, the overwhelming need for a cigarette almost never lasts longer than two minutes at a time.

You only need to hold out for two lousy minutes.

You can do that.