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Are you in the smoking cult? Here's how to quit

July 1st 2007 saw smoking banned in all public places in the United Kingdom. No doubt some smokers saw this as good motivation to finally quit. Non-smokers have access (at last) to breathable air in pubs, clubs and restaurants. Committed smokers also have more cause and rebellion attached to their smoking – a combustible and irresistible mix. Deny somebody something they think they a) want and b) need, and you have a sure-fire recipe for making that 'something' more attractive – at least to a certain type of smoker. I refer, of course, to the rebellious smoker.

The smokers are revolting

The rebellious smoker usually started smoking as an adolescent behaviour in their early teens. It was a form of rebelling or revolting against parents, teachers, society, whatever. The rebellious association for these smokers has persisted into adulthood, so telling them they should quit smoking is like telling an infatuated teenage girl she should stop seeing that enigmatic edgy guy – she'll want him even more. Encourage her to see him – even insist – and she'll see through him quick enough. It's the same for the rebellious smoker.

The rubber band effect

If you force yourself (or I try to force you) to deny yourself something you want, you build an inner tension. That tension grows.

Telling that teenage girl not to see that guy she is infatuated with is likely to just increase her desire to see him. You pull her one way and she becomes more attracted to going the other way. It's just like a rubber band you've stretched too far – it springs back.

Telling people they shouldn't smoke when so much of smoking is about rebellion against advice and 'orders' can actually encourage more smoking, especially if the smoker in question has never discarded their adolescent associations to the habit.

Rebellion needs to be used and directed

I have treated hundreds of smokers, ranging from those who are well and truly out of love with it to those who are still fondly staring at it through rose-tinted spectacles.

When treating infatuated smokers, we need to address this matter of rebellion – because you'll always be suspicious of anything or anyone who seems to want to attack the object of your attachment. We need to bring it out into the open and deal with it.

Protecting that which seeks to destroy you

People are often protective and defensive about things (such as cults, individuals or, indeed, substances) that damage and undermine them. Why? There are two main reasons:

  • 'Cognitive dissonance'. You have to justify and rationalise to yourself (and others) why you do something which has no advantages and many disadvantages. So if a cult has taken all your money it's easier to assert that this was somehow a good thing than to admit to yourself or others that you've been a schmuck.
  • Misdirected rebellion. Of course, the smoker who is slowly being killed by nicotine should really be rebellious toward the smoking itself.
If we think of smoking as an interloper – something outside the core identity of the smoker (which of course it is) – we can see it working something like this:

To maintain itself and 'survive', the smoking habit has to collect this rebellious force and direct it against the 'rubbish day' or the 'stressful meeting' or the fact that 'everyone is telling me to quit, so to hell with them, I'll smoke if I want…' In other words, the rebellion has to be directed anywhere except toward the smoking itself. This use of and deflection of rebellion is regularly used in cults. And it's also the standard tactic of dominant and manipulative partners in emotionally abusive relationships.

Cults and manipulators

The manipulative abusive partner and the controlling cult will effectively direct rebellion onto 'outsiders', so that their victims come to defend what is undermining them and attack what may threaten the abuser, cult, or addictive habit. This is why formerly family-minded cult victims may start hating and avoiding their own families. The cult hasn't tried to stop their need to rebel, it has just directed this away from itself. So the need for conflict is harnessed. The emotional manipulator will try bit by bit to undermine their 'partner's' friends, families and outside interests (all possible threats to the manipulator).

When the cult/relationship victim starts to turn round and see what it was that was really undermining or destroying them, there is a moment of awakening: 'Oh, it's you I need to rebel against! You are not my friend after all!' Rebellious smokers need to reach this stage in order to break free of the need to use smoking as rebellion – and hopefully escape with their lives.

But be warned! People are prepared to die for their beliefs. Beliefs are powerful and influential things. Just 'talking sense' to the cult member, infatuated abused lover or rebellious smoker will do little to help, and may strengthen their resolve to continue their self-destructive pattern. This is because, far more often than not, beliefs are formed though emotion rather than logic.

Being prepared to die for beliefs

Rebellion is always part of the equation in the cult/bad relationship dynamic. At first, you protect what damages you by directing your rebellion outwards to protect the source of the damage (this process is, unsurprisingly, busily encouraged by the source of the damage – such as the tobacco industry – to protect itself). Then (hopefully, once you've had that moment of awakening) you re-direct the rebellion against what is really destroying you and so save yourself. Rather than blind rebellious force against, for example 'busybody non-smokers', we now have intelligent rebellion. But the common element is rebellion. It is always there. The rebellious smoker has unwittingly been brainwashed into being prepared to lay down their lives for the 'cause' of smoking.

Beliefs are truly powerful. We all, sadly, know of terrorists who were willing to die for their beliefs. But many smokers are only too equally willing to die for their beliefs. People don't just throw away their health, their looks or their lives unless they have beliefs. Even if these beliefs are unconsciously held and not fully recognised. People believe in their own autonomy and powers of independent thought, and will claim that they have formulated their beliefs themselves. They often fail to recognise when their dearly held views have actually been supplied by others.

Smoking beliefs and arguments

There's plenty of them. Some are quite imaginative!
  • I could be run over by a bus tomorrow/got to die from something
    One in 14,000 people are run over; one in two 20-a-day smokers are killed by their cigarettes.
  • It's not the smoking that's giving me this cough etc.
    No, of course not – and beating someone up in a relationship just proves how much they love you right?
  • Smokers are more interesting/creative/exciting/cool/bohemian/etc – Smoking is part of my identity!
    Not even going to comment! Where are we – high school? Was no one interesting, cool etc before tobacco was introduced? OK, so I did comment.
  • I'll give up when I choose to. I just haven't chosen to.
    Yeah, yeah! Just do it.
  • It's my friend/companion/'secret vice'. It 'looks after me' when I'm stressed/upset/disappointed/bored etc.
    Yeah, weakening your gums, destroying your serotonin so you get more depression and pain, slowing blood flow into your penis (if you're a man) and shrivelling your ovaries (if you're a woman), dimming your vision, and making you look 10 years older. If a person did this to me I wouldn't be sending them Christmas cards.
  • I only smoke one to four cigarettes a day. Where's the harm?
    Compared with those who have never smoked, men and women who smoke between one and four cigarettes a day are almost three times as likely to die of coronary artery disease.
  • It punctuates the day – full stop at the end of a meal, comma in a meeting etc. Mmmm… right!
  • My Uncle Fred smoked every day of his life and ran marathons until he was 110!
    Good! Was he insane? The average smoker pays seven years of life for their habit.
  • If I didn't smoke, what would I do with my hands?
    Errrr… go look at some non-smokers or people who haven't started yet – or think back!
  • I use smoking to relax, concentrate etc.
    So which is it – relaxation or stimulation? It can't do both. Do non-smokers never relax/concentrate? That's your reason for sacrificing yourself for the tobacco company?
  • I'm completely physically addicted and there's nothing I can do.
    Ah – so smokers never go on long haul flights or sleep eight hours without waking up to smoke? Conditioned association to certain times and activities is not physical addiction.
There must be more in the smokers' belief system, but I have outlined the main ones, I think. None of them sound as compelling to me as the thought of eternal glory and reward in paradise which inspires other believers to lay down their lives.

Since 1945 90,000,000 people have sacrificed their lives for the tobacco industry's profits. About ten people would have been killed by smoking during the time it takes you to read this. Three thousand children 'sign up' everyday in the US and become regular smokers. They join the cult and some never break free. In Britain twelve times as many people have been killed by smoking as died in World War Two. We justify, protect, and romanticise to ourselves and others what kills us. We do the head in the sand thing. But, believe it or not. I am not an anti-smoker! Not at all.

Get over it

If you loved someone but now you hate them, you are still emotionally involved. You are still attached. Love and hate both have intense emotional focus in common.

It's the same for ex-cult members and ex-smokers. The worst kind of ex-smoker is the sanctimonious 'anti-smoker'. Get over it, I say. When something no longer fits, when you've really outgrown it, you don't need to hate it or focus on it at all. It just fades into irrelevance. When curing people of smoking, I take account of their possible need to protect (the smoking habit) and their need for rebellion, and agree the goal of becoming a relaxed 'non-smoker' rather than an impassioned 'ex-smoker'. Hypnosis – done well – can be an excellent treatment for smoking as long as the hypnotherapist has a sophisticated understanding of psychology and can appreciate how the smoker has already been hypnotised by the cigarettes. Smokers have to be de-hypnotised as much as hypnotised.

But haven't they really got to want to stop?

When faced with a rebellious smoker or a reluctant quitter, I think we can forget the old much-bleated clichι: 'Yes, but they've got to really want to stop!' As a therapist, it is one's job to increase motivation and use rebellion as the powerful force it is to rescue the captive of smoking before it kills them.

It's going to be interesting to see the long term results of the public ban. Maybe there will just be a greater incidence of rebellious and infatuated smokers!

You can learn How to Stop Anyone Smoking with Mark Tyrrell on our Smoking Cessation Training Course (online).

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