I tried to quit smoking cigarettes many times, either by going cold turkey, gnawing gum or popping lozenges. Those methods never worked for me. At root, I was addicted to nicotine, regardless of its form. What did work for me was switching to an e-cigarette and slowly diluting the amount of nicotine I was vaporizing before finally quitting all forms of nicotine.
While the scientific jury is still out on whether or not e-cigarettes can be used as an effective tool for quitting, I wonder if it may have advantages specifically because it’s easier to manipulate the amount of nicotine in an e-cig. Importantly, quitting in this fashion did not produce any significant withdrawal symptoms for me, which I found to be quite a relief.
I’m not looking for congratulations here: I never should have started smoking in the first place. But I do want to share what did and didn’t work for me in the hope that it might help others quit.
Smoking is stupid; at best, vaping may be slightly less stupid
Let me be clear before I dive in: switching to vaping by itself is not “quitting smoking,” in my mind, as many claim. It’s simply getting nicotine by vaporizing fluid in one’s mouth instead of inhaling burning tobacco into one’s lungs.
That said, vaping has a few things going for it: it doesn’t make you, your clothes, your car and your home stink, you can stealth vape in movie theaters, at bars and in airplanes, and, fundamentally, you don’t have to set plant material on fire to get your nicotine fix. At least for right now, it’s also cheaper than smoking for most users.
Still, nicotine addiction is nicotine addiction. It remains costly: I was spending about a grand a year on vape stuff. And despite the rhetoric and sincerely held beliefs of many e-cig marketers, I’d be shocked if vaping turned out to be consequence-free as more scientific studies are completed. To be sure, it may have society-wide harm mitigation benefits compared to smoking tobacco, but doctors are right to urge individual vapers to quit.
A brief review of my failed quit attempts
I’ve tried quitting nicotine many times. The longest I went was a few months when I was dating someone who insisted on it. Absent that incentive, quitting felt incredibly tough, despite the fact that I very much wanted to quit and, in fact, felt guilty about being such a chimney. As workplace smoking bans and smoking in bars shut down, it became increasingly isolating to be a regular tobacco smoker.
I tried going cold turkey a few times, which was hilariously ineffective. I would break down, buy a pack, smoke a cig, throw out the pack, then break down again and buy another pack. As someone who values frugality and efficiency, this felt doubly self-defeating. And like a lot of people who have attempted to quit, I’ll admit that I’ve rooted through a trash can looking for a pack of smokes I threw out just a few minutes beforehand. It was pathetic, not to mention unsanitary.
In college, I tried occasionally smoking a hookah instead of keeping up my pack-a-day habit. That was particularly dumb and unworkable, since hookahs involve setting wads of molasses-soaked tobacco on fire with charcoal. Hitting one of those things twice a day is not recommended, especially if you like climbing stairs.
Gums and lozenges were of little help. I just stayed addicted to the nicotine in the gum and lozenges. I think the main problem was that the recommended quitting methods involved extending the period of time between doses. That hurt. And I wound up immediately sweating the clock. The recommended jumps struck me as far too ambitious: I was supposed to go 2 hours between my nicotine fix one week and then double that to 4 hours the next week? What am I, the golden god of white-knuckle willpower? Please.
The gum and lozenges are also kind of shitty. The gum is generally tough and as a committed nicotine addict, I was willing to undergo a jaw workout to extract the last precious infinitesimal bits of the drug. The lozenges tend to have a medicinal flavor and can be rough on one’s gums, too.
Finally, it’s somewhat difficult and imprecise to try to “dilute” gum or lozenges by cutting them into halves and quarters, though I tried doing that, too. Thankfully – at least for me – vaping opened up a more precise and gradual avenue for weaning myself off nicotine.
Dilute like you mean it
I started with a 12mg / ml solution, which the company I was buying fluid from marketed as “medium.” I bought a big old batch of 0 mg fluid for $90, which felt silly at the time – why pay for something that doesn’t have the precious nicotine? – but I obviously needed it to seriously dilute the fluid. I also found it useful to pick up a small funnel to transfer fluid into the 30 ml bottles I carried around to fill my vape.
Over the course of ten weeks, here’s how I brought the concentration down:
- Week 1: 9 mg (25% drop)
- Week 2: 7 mg (22% drop)
- Week 3: 5.5 mg (21% drop)
- Week 4: 4.3 mg (22% drop)
- Week 5: 2.8 mg (35% drop)
- Week 6: 1.4 mg (50% drop)
- Week 7: 0.7 mg (50% drop)
- Week 8: 0.36 mg (50% drop)
- Week 9: 0.27 mg (25% drop)
- Week 10: Stopped vaping (100% drop)
It was haphazard, but I never felt like I was going without nicotine at any point in the process. During the first two rounds of dilution, I puffed on the vape more often, but I didn’t miss those few milligrams of nicotine. After I got down to around 1.4 mg of fluid, I wasn’t catching much of a buzz off vaping, but I also didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps that’s around where my addiction threshold lies? Or perhaps it was just a function of taking a slightly bigger drop at that point? It’s hard to say.
By the end, I felt like I was just vaping out of habit. I’m sure my brain’s well-worn nicotine receptors were still getting a little something out of it, but I was getting closer and closer to smoking the 0 mg fluid on its own. And as my supply of 0 mg fluid dwindled, I knew I’d naturally reach a quit date: there was no way I was going to lay down good money on yet another batch of 0 mg fluid. (And I had also committed to not hauling along my e-cig bullshit on my first summer hike, especially since it weighed more than a pound and there are no wall outlets in the backcountry.)
Sticking to flavorless fluid probably helped
I used to roll my own cigs for a while and I’ll never forget the rich taste of London Export tobacco. That was some good stuff. Even as a teenager, my tastes ran more in the direction of Lucky Strikes as opposed to Camels, Marlboroughs or Newports. When I started vaping, I found the “tobacco” flavored fluids to be pretty gross – I assume it’s hard to simulate tobacco’s complex flavors – so I eventually switched to flavorless fluid – it’s just kind of sweet – and never looked back. I felt like that returned my sense of taste and smell to normal before I even tried to quit. Functionally, it also removed a variable that often bothered me during previous quit attempts.
Non-smokers might not be able to relate to this, but it’s unsettling to become aware of what your own mouth tastes like without tobacco. That happened to a much lesser degree when I quit vaping flavorless fluid. Popping a piece of gum felt like it negated that odd feeling rather than merely masking it.
Throwing out my vape shit felt awesome
One of the pain-in-the-ass things about quitting smoking is that we’re constantly surrounded by cigarettes. Every bodega, convenience store and most pharmacies have them behind the counter. They also stock a lot of disposable e-cigs nowadays, too.
As I threw my vape shit out – several batteries, 2 charger cords, leftover cartomizers, a container of unused fluid, and a beat up, nicotine-stained glasses case I kept most of that shit in – I felt free. And I knew I’d feel like a pathetic dumbass if I walked into a vape shop and purchased nearly $100 worth of start-up vape equipment again. And, thankfully, the disposable vapes at 7-11 lost their appeal to me a while ago, mostly because they taste like crap. Now, buying one of those would feel like climbing all the way back up that 10-week vape dilution ladder I had just descended. No thanks.
Two weeks without
My mom said something that stuck with me when she quit smoking her ultra-thin Capri Menthols: she was sick of looking for her cigs, worrying about how many she had around, where her lighter was, etc. Indeed, addiction is loud background music. In the same way that puffing on a vape or a cig can be an idle fallback, it’s also a burden.
This is what it feels like to not constantly indulge a nicotine addiction: I stopped reflexively reaching into my pocket to grab my dumb vape stick. I stopped eyeballing rooms I walked into for a charger. I stopped carrying around an eyeglass case with more than a pound of vape gear in it. I stopped spilling little drops of nicotine fluid on my clothes. I stopped sneaking vape drags in professional settings. I stopped looking like some bounty hunter from the future.
I stopped thinking about vaping dozens of times a day. And shit, that may mean a premature end to my career as a competitive vaper, but I think that’s A-okay.
I can’t believe this, but I’m even starting to enjoy beer and coffee in isolation. It’s weird! But this is what it’s like for most people who aren’t nicotine addicts. They actually enjoy these things in isolation!
Anyway, it’s been a relief. I hope I keep it up. After 16 years of addiction, I want to look back on this as the year I finally quit nicotine in all its pernicious forms.
I’ll close this with an old song, one my grandfather sang from time to time, including a few instances in which he conveyed unheeded warnings to his grandson about the pitfalls of taking up smoking: