Is it better to quit smoking gradually or cold turkey?

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Samantha Reid
Health Education Specialist

Studies show that smokers who gradually quit or those who use nicotine replacement therapy are most successful over the long term. However, because every addiction is different, what works for one person might not work for you.

Dr. John C. Norcross, PhD
Psychology Specialist

“Should I abruptly stop or gradually decrease my smoking?” is a question asked by most smokers planning to quit. The question pits cold turkey against nicotine fading, but as you’ll see, they are not necessarily incompatible.

Going cold turkey means that you abruptly and totally give up the habit. On Friday you were smoking, but on Saturday you are not. The benefits of this method include the immediate success of stopping, getting a quick and dramatic start, and avoiding thinking about the nasty habit and its temptation. The downsides are the lack of preparation when not smoking (Now what do I do instead of smoke?) and the withdrawal symptoms from nicotine absence. Sudden withdrawal from extensive smoking (several packs a day) can prove dangerous, especially among those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Nicotine fading, by contrast, means that you gradually reduce the amount of smoking over time or by using a nicotine replacement system, such as a patch, nasal spray or gum. Smokers either change their cigarette brands each week to ones containing progressively less nicotine and tar or reduce the number of cigarettes gradually each day or two. The benefits of this method include easing into quitting, giving yourself time and practice to quit, and allowing your body to grow accustomed to lower doses of nicotine, thereby reducing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. The downsides are that it takes a little longer to quit and that some folks may find it difficult to stop altogether using fading.

Which method works best? That largely depends on you.

  • Do you desire the instant quit or the gradual fade? Both work; decide which one fits your needs and situation best.
  • How physically dependent are you on nicotine? The more dependent, the more need for fading to avoid intolerable withdrawal.
  • How psychologically prepared are you to stop? Cold turkey requires that you instantly implement no-smoking behaviors and use healthy substitutes for dealing with stress, boredom and cravings.

Finally, remember that both methods can benefit from a nicotine replacement system—the patch, the gum, the spray. In this respect, you can still go cold turkey and stop smoking while using nicotine replacement. Not contradictory, but complementary—the dramatic start of quitting cigarettes tomorrow with the physical advantages of reducing or eliminating the withdrawal symptoms.

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Either one is fine and one might work better for some people while another works better for others. The key is to quit. Quitting gradually should include a plan that results in no more smoking (not just cutting back).

Rebecca Swainston, NP
Nursing Specialist

Rebecca Swainston, NP, from West Valley Medical Group – Middleton, advises people to quit smoking cold turkey, as it has been proven more effective than quitting gradually. Watch this video to hear more.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.