The "Italian Stallion" thinks a minute, then rocks forward and lets the "Teddy Bear" have it.

"Without me," says the athletic young man, his muscles rippling through tight-fighting clothes, "you're going to get fat."

"Oh, that's what I'm afraid of," says the shaken "Teddy Bear," a nervous, sandy-haired woman.

The "Stallion" doesn't let up. "I solved all your problems. Now you're telling me to hit the road. You'll be lonely."

"Well," whispers the woman, "at least I'll be alive even if I'm alone." Seconds later, she explodes.

"Bug off!"

No, this is not the saga of a middle-aged woman trying to shake off a young gigolo. It's two people helping each other try to break a three- and four-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

Robert Bookman, who developed the eight-week "Butt-Out" program from his work as a corporation consultant on stress management, explains the exchange like this:

"Smokers see cigarettes as a friend. I tell them they're a fair-weather friend."

On a recent evening -- five weeks into the program -- he has asked four smokers to take turns protraying the role of a cigarette. Find the weak spot in each other's will to quit, he instructs, and they launch their attacks with gusto.

As longtime puffers -- some have tried several smoke-cessation programs -- they know the difficulties.

"Hard-core seduction," says Bookman. Up to now, his charges -- each dubbed with a confidence-building nickname -- have been cutting back gradually. After this session, they're to stop completely. It's a crucial night.

Before the theatrics are over, they have strongly rejected their once-pleasurable pal they turned to for comfort in times of stress or anger or boredom. They go out into the brisk night air bouyant with expectations of success.

To Bookman, rejecting that pal is like overcoming the death of someone you love, with a similar grieving process. The phases:

Denial: "You deny smoking is a problem."

Anger: "Smokers have a lot of anger." Anger toward themselves and the people they feel "make them smoke -- their boss, their spouse."

Depression: "Sometimes there's a sadness. The habit's been with them through trying times."

Bargaining: Smokers tell themselves, "I don't have to stop all the way. I can just cut down, and that's okay."

Acceptance: "when they're no longer a smoker. It amazes people how quickly that becomes a fact."

A major feature of Bookman's program is getting smokers to break the connection between smoking and the routine activities that prompt them to light up. It's how he gave up his own 12-year tobacco habit in 1975. "I was teaching stress management, but I was still smoking and biting my fingernails. tIt just didn't look good."

Bookman, 37, says he came to realize, "I needed to smoke in terms of magical things: like starting the car, making the bus come. I knew that there were nonsmokers just as crazy as I am who don't have to make these connections."

To make the break, he tells his clients, "take a deep breath" when you feel the need for a cigarette "and count to 8. Say, 'I am an effective problem solver.'"

At the same time, he urges clients "to feel any emotion that comes up."

This involves a process called "anchoring." When something -- sadness, anger, even happiness -- makes them crave a few puffs, he tells them to put a thumb on their wrist and "give yourself permission to feel what you feel. You say, 'I'm feeling blah, blah, blah' (on the inhale), 'and that's okay' (on the exhale)."

Bookman's clients also carry around a list -- to read regularly -- of reasons they want to quit.

On his list, says Bookman, he wrote that he wanted to stop "feeling inferior to nonsmokers, especially in conflict situations. They had the advantage." When he lit up, "they could see I was upset." He also didn't want "this 4-inch white dragon in control of me."

It took Bookman three weeks to quit, in a tapering-off process he employs in his sessions.

"Each week I made commitments. I wouldn't smoke while I was on the telephone, when I was alone, when I was watching TV." Other tapering techniques: Wait a minute, then two before reaching for a cigarette. Smoke only half. Each week, his group switches brands. "They enjoy them less."

Another big part of his program is developing a support system within his group. They call each other often. "I want you to give that person a pep talk, even if you don't feel like making your own commitment," Bookman tells them.

And at the weekly two-hour sessions, they air specific problems:

The "Stallion" dated a smoker the previous weekend, who insisted he share a cigarette. Finally, he did. But it upset him so much, he dropped her off at her door without so much as a goodnight kiss.

Student "Joan of Arc" complains, "I had a banana creme pie for my first cigarette this morning."

"Teddy Bear" is worried about the attitude of her husband, a smoker who leaves packs of cigarettes around the house. "You're angry," she says she told him, "because I can do something you can't."

Bookman's clients must also get a friend to write them a letter why they should quit. "Tower of Power," a 6-foot-plus young father, was deeply moved when a boyhood chum wrote: "I want to challenge you to a basketball game when we're in our 80s."

Throughout the 8-week program, which costs $200, Bookman tries to keep the atmosphere one of "fun." He's got a troupe of puppets, including "Mr. Urge," which his smokers pummel. Once a teacher of pre-kindergarteners, he says, "I'm dealing with the 4-year-old within them that needs instant gratification."

Bookman tends to play down scare tactics. Instead, he attempts to build "integrity," a commitment to his step-by-step process: "If you want good luck, then choose to have good luck."

Bookman offers a money-back guarantee to clients who have not stopped smoking by the eighth session. Based on phone follow-ups a year later, he claims an above-average success rate for the 800 people who have taken his classes. (The average program is reported to have a 25 to 50 percent success rate.)

Bob Barnes, 36, an AID project design officer, quit smoking last month after 22 years. "I don't know what it is that works. Maybe it's a combination of all those things he throws at you."

Bookman insists his smokers collect their butts in a glass jar and, periodically, unscrew the cap and take a whiff.

As "Stallion" puts it: