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For people who smoke, January is a time to quit.

For people who have resolved to quit smoking, the new year’s resolution to quit marks both a challenge and an opportunity.

"If a person has quit for one day, it increases the chance they can quit forever," said Dr. Stephen Haering, district director of health for the City of Alexandria. "People may have picked Jan. 1 as a quit date, but tobacco is the most difficult addiction we know of to conquer."

People who have decided to quit must overcome chemical addiction, the habit of smoking, as well as the psychological dependency of cigarettes.

Medication in the form of the nicotine patch, nicotine gum or chantix is one way to overcome the chemical addiction. Changing lifestyle patterns that trigger smoking is also important.

The psychological addiction, however, is often the most difficult part of quitting because it is a source of comfort for many. For someone who smokes, quitting is akin to saying goodbye to a friend forever.

"Non-smokers might not understand what you mean when cigarettes are your best friend," said Cathy Turner, director of health promotion at the Virginia Hospital Center. "Can you imagine telling someone you can never associate with your best friend forever?"

People who are resolved to quit because of a new year’s resolution are often at odds with the psychological aspect of cessation.

"When the motivation for change is from the social situation, cultural event or outside the person, it is an insufficient way to promote complex situational changes," said Dr. Linda Gulyn, a professor of psychology at Marymount University. "Smoking is such a complex behavior, if you throw away a pack of cigarettes you feel icky and are really punishing yourself."

A relapse is common for people who smoke, and more often than not quitting requires multiple attempts. When someone does decide to quit, even for a day, the experience can prove fundamental as it provides an important exercise in self-awareness.

"If a person has quit for one day, it increases the chance they can quit forever."

— Dr. Stephen Haering, District Director of Health for the City of Alexandria

"You should not feel like it is not successful, look at it as a learning experience. You should never be discouraged, try and continue to try," said Bunny Caro-justin, a former smoker and spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health’s Tobacco Use Control Project. "Think about your previous experience quitting, know what works and what does not work."

The benefits of quitting are immediate. According to a 2004 surgeon general report, within 20 minutes of quitting heart rates drop to normal levels; within 12 hours carbon monoxide drops to normal levels; after one month coughing and shortness of breath cease; within two weeks and three months the risk of heart attack is significantly reduced.

To achieve a successful cessation and realize the benefits of a smoke-free lifestyle, people who smoke need support. Supports can come from friends, family, counseling groups as well as the Virginia QUIT NOW hotline.

The hotline, a service provided by the Virginia Department of Health, is available twenty-four hours a day and is staffed by former smokers knowledgeable about the difficulty of quitting.

Communication with others helps to overcome the psychological difficulty of smoking.

"Talking to someone is pleasant and rewarding," said Gulyn. "If you say ‘this afternoon after lunch I will call this number’ instead of reaching for a pack, that is a positive change."

Quit coaches are readily available through the hotline or at clinics, and offer a chance to personalize a cessation strategy. "Using medication and counseling in concert is the most effective way to quit," said Haering.

According to the Alexandria Department of Health, 13 percent of adults in Alexandria currently smoke. Although the percentage is below the state average of 18.5 percent, health officials are deeply concerned for the 15,000 people who continue to use tobacco.

"Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of disease, disability and death because of the adverse effects on every organ system we have," said Dr. Stephen Haering, director of Health for the City of Alexandria. "Anybody that can reduce the amount of exposure is improving their health immediately."

As the single most important thing a person can do for their health, quitting means a commitment to self-awareness, and an appreciation that a new year’s resolution is only as effective as the supports available.

"It takes more than just a promise on Jan. 1. Find social support, do things with other people," said Gulyn. "Remember a new year’s resolution is about adding something positive to your life."

For Help

For someone resolved to quit smoking, the 1800-QUIT NOW hotline is a resource for learning a cessation strategy, or having a conversation with a former smoker. Testimonials can be found at: www.va.health.org.... Smokers can also enroll in cessation classes through the Virginia Hospital Center at: virginiahospitalcenter.com.