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Getting off tobacco road leads to renewed relief

Stopping smoking can be difficult, but healthy living is a daily effort. Take command of your health today. (U.S. Army graphic by Karin Martinez) Stopping smoking can be difficult, but healthy living is a daily effort. Take command of your health today. (U.S. Army graphic by Karin Martinez)

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I always thought about quitting smoking. I hated the taste, the smell on my clothes, the constant coughing and belabored breathing. But I thought it made me feel better emotionally — even though I felt worse physically.

When I started smoking 16 years ago, at first it was just experimentation; then it became social and, as I got older, an established habit. I tried everything to quit — cinnamon, chewing gum, nicotine gum, smokeless tobacco, vaping — but they were all failed attempts. The most I would go without a cigarette was three weeks, and then I’d come up with an excuse for having one. “You only have one life; why not enjoy it,” “It’s just one cigarette,” or “It’s been a stressful day, I’ll start again tomorrow,” I’d tell myself.

Ties between the United States military and the tobacco industry trace back to the early 20th century. Reports show that during the Second World War, for example, cigarette advertisements praising service members were widespread on popular radio programs and in periodicals, and were even included as inserts in prepackaged meals.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Gavin Whitehead has been smoke-free for seven months with the help of counseling and medication. (Courtesy photo)
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Gavin Whitehead has been smoke-free for seven months with the help of counseling and medication. (Courtesy photo)

Today, the military offers programs such as UCanQuit2, a Department of Defense educational campaign that includes information on tobacco cessation and round-the-clock help to become tobacco-free. For the first time, cigarette smoking in the military has declined to the point where it's now lower than rates in the general population, according to the DoD Health Related Behaviors Survey.

Every person is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all method of quitting smoking. But with the help of counseling and medication, I’ve been smoke-free for seven months now, and I feel amazing. Today, I walk away from the mere smell of cigarette smoke — not because I’m tempted; I simply don’t want to be around it.

It wasn’t always easy. The urges to smoke were strong in the beginning, but the medication helped subdue them. After the first couple of weeks, they became a thought in the back of my mind, and after that, they completely left. I no longer have any urges. It’s like ending a long-term relationship. At first, with the separation, you miss having that person around and wonder if you made the right decision. Then you see that you’re better off without them, and you carry on with your life and let go of that portion. This doesn’t mean I don’t think about smoking. If I see an advertisement or see somebody smoking, I might think about it for a minute, but then I remember the smell, the taste, and the coughing, and I want no part of it.

In my counseling sessions, my counselor and I talked about peer pressure, stress, and setting realistic goals. We looked at why I smoked, why I hadn’t quit yet, and my life experiences. She provided a very therapeutic atmosphere but also held me accountable, which I needed. The honest, open conversations, plus the medication, helped tremendously in my finally being able to quit.

I reached the point where enough was enough. I wasn’t a heavy drinker, but I gave up alcohol because it’s a precursor. Alcohol will lower my inhibitions and make it easier to smoke. I want to give myself the best odds possible to make the right choices for the right reasons, so I don’t drink.

These days, I exercise more than I did when I was smoking. As a Marine vice logistics chief, exercise is part of my job. Before I quit smoking, I would feel resentful about exercising, or put off doing it. Today my energy levels have improved, my general outlook on life has improved, and I no longer look at exercise as a bothersome chore. Instead, it’s something I want to do.

If you’re thinking about quitting smoking, make sure you’re 100 percent ready and are doing it for yourself. In my experience, when I attempted to quit because other people wanted me to, or because it was the healthy thing to do, I failed. When I did it because I really wanted to, and sought resources that had been in put in place by the military, I found true success.

Changing habits can be difficult, but healthy living is a daily effort. Take command of your health today.

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