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Catherine New Headshot

Why Scary Images Didn't Help Me Quit Smoking

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My last cigarette was on June 2, 2008. I have not had a single puff since that date. On my final attempt to quit (and I tried at least a dozen times), it was cold turkey. There was no image, no replacement therapy or incentive that worked for me. I tried everything -- gum, patches, social pressure, scary black lung photos and incentives like spa trips -- but in the end, I quit because I was ready to quit.

This week, government health officials unveiled the graphic images they have selected to use on cigarette packages starting next year. They are horrifying and unpleasant, but they are the truth. Two of my loved ones are currently battling lung cancer, emphysema and chronic pulmonary disease as a result of smoking. I believe the images will deter young people from picking up that first cigarette and help lay the psychological groundwork for smokers who want to make a real commitment to quitting. But in my experience it took much more than graphic images to get me to quit. I needed a total shift in the way I thought. I got that confidence from hearing about other people's experience. So I am sharing mine.

According to government statistics, an estimated 4,000 young people try their first cigarette every day, and a quarter of them become regular smokers. I was one of those. Back in 1987, I tried my first Camel Light after a long day of seventh grade. From that moment on, and for the next 21 years, I spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on my smoking habit. I tried to compensate with health-food diets and exercise, and I justified it by telling myself I would quit when I was 25 and then 30. Both birthdays blasted past me, while I continued to inhale the cancer-causing fumes that I was convinced relaxed me, kept my weight down and were part of my sophisticated self-image.

I first encountered the graphic anti-smoking images on a trip to Canada years before I finally put down my last cigarette. I bought a pack and grimaced when I saw the blackened, rotting teeth that grinned back at me from the box. I'll never be that person, I thought, and repacked the cigarettes into a silver case so I wouldn't have to look at the pictures. But I was becoming that person slowly. I ignored my dentist when he commented on the tar stains on the back of my teeth. The small indicators that smoking had become more than a social habit started to accumulate: I experienced an asthma attack while rushing to catch a bus; I developed sleep apnea; and I often found myself outside in the cold, shivering and alone, to smoke in sub-zero temperatures.

The final straw came for me on a 2007 trip to Beijing, China, where the summer air quality is terrible. A thick haze of pollution and smoke obscured the July sun and the acrid air burned my lungs when I was outside. Did that stop me from smoking? No way. My first morning in the capital city, I purchased a packet of locally made smokes and fired up, wincing as I sucked down my much-needed nicotine. Later on the same trip, my husband and I were trekking through beautiful high-altitude mountains in the western part of the country. While everyone else admired the natural scenery, I hid behind a tent to smoke a cigarette and gasped for air at 16,000 feet. What was I doing to myself and where had my addiction taken me? I knew the time had come. The scales had tipped; smoking caused me more harm and shame than pleasure.

It took me many months of trying to break up with my friends, cigarettes. The physical addiction and craving were intense. I would go through a day or two, and then light up. A friend recommended Allen Carr's best-selling book The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. Using the method, I envisioned myself as a non-smoker and focused on what I was gaining, not on what I was losing. Next I set a quit date for myself, and with the power of positive thinking, I stayed smoke-free a day at a time. The days turned into months, months into years.

The new packaging is a step in the right direction to deter young people from the terrible habit that kills more than 440,000 every year. But even more important are the stories from people who have successfully quit. Confidence can't be packaged. Quitting is possible. Learn more about quitting smoking and please share your 'quit' story below.

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