Most of the images we have of smoking are social, such as after a meal, or having fun with friends. In fact though, "secret smoking" is a new kind of part-time smoking which is increasingly common on the current scene. The public health community has succeeded so well in convincing us of the dangers of smoking that even the president of the United States has had to sneak around to smoke in the White House! What are the consequences of engaging in a hidden behavior like secret smoking that your spouse and children are so against? Why do families want smokers to stop smoking? Because they love them! They want them, in the words of the song by the Supremes to "Stop in the name of love". So, not surprisingly, many who are still out there smoking in secret are struggling with a guilty conscience.
The process of smoking in secret is two-sided. On the one hand, smokers are "sparing" their loved ones, who would be upset to see them smoke. On the other hand, they are "sparing" themselves from having to acknowledge the guilt which smoking brings them. So we are not just talking about our relationships with our families, friends and co-workers, but about how smoking affects our relationship with ourselves and our own bodies.
As smoking out in the open becomes less acceptable in homes, workplaces, and other public meeting places, is there a hidden emotional price being paid by those who continue to sneak a smoke? Does it matter whether smoking is in secret or out in the open? Is smoking in secret really a big deal? After all, everyone keeps some secrets from the people in their lives. Isn't that part of being your own separate person in this world? You can make a good case for sparing others' feelings through telling "white lies," so why wouldn't smoking "just a few" fit into this category?
Does smoking even "just a few" cut us off from our own bodies through a loss of self-control?
One study followed 43,000 people in Norway for more than 25 years. The results are not encouraging for those who wish to continue to have just a few cigarettes each day. The study concludes: "In both sexes, smoking 1-4 cigarettes per day was significantly associated with higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease and from all causes..." The authors specifically warn that health educators should emphasize more strongly that light smokers also endanger their health.
Addicted smokers who cut down and smoke in secret may be getting less nicotine. However "light smoking" can actually increase the reward value of each cigarette smoked. Light smokers may think that smoking fewer cigarettes makes them less addicted. In reality, each time they smoke, even if infrequently, their smoking brain will be expecting another cigarette, no matter how long it must wait. Smoking in secret becomes just another version of the loss of self-control that distinguishes all addictions.
Does secret smoking cut us off from the people we are close to in our lives?
Julia D., model-thin and attractive, was about to turn 40 and was starting to confront her own mortality. Her smoking made her fearful about what might happen to her family if she got sick. Her husband recently had been diagnosed with a serious illness, and several of her friends were also having medical problems. She smoked about 10 cigarettes a day, but not at home or in front of the kids. She was a "secret smoker," who hid her addiction from both friends and family. She described herself as a "very anxious person" and a "perfectionist and a hypochondriac, so smoking doesn't work for me."
Patrick R. was a burly Irish-American with an outgoing personality, a demanding job in publishing, and a busy family life. He didn't smoke all weekend, or on vacations with his family, but Monday mornings in the office was his trigger and green light to "just smoke one." He would close his office door and light up. In the past, colleagues used to join him, but now there were few other smokers at the company. He had some serious health worries, and a family history of heart disease, smoking, and early death. He was suspicious that even if he did quit, and overcome his "dark secret," he might die young anyway. Still, he was troubled by the hold smoking had on him. He was torn between his compulsion to smoke and the guilt he felt about how this might someday affect the people he loved.
Making your life better by going smoke-free
Lifting the burden of guilt over realistic health concerns and letting your loved ones down are significant psychological benefits of quitting. Lifting the stress of engaging in a behavior that is at odds with our self-image, is another important benefit of quitting. If unhappiness is what happens when we let ourselves down, is happiness what happens when we make our best efforts to be the person we wish we could be? Doing something hard, like quitting smoking, can bring with it increased confidence that we can handle other difficult things which life throws our way. So making this important health change might not only go a long way in helping you look other people in your life in the eye, but can also make you stand a little taller when you take a good look at yourself in the mirror!
See the accompanying video for some thoughts about going smoke-free as the new year approaches.
Dr. Seidman is author of the new book Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit with a foreword by Dr. Mehmet Oz (Fireside Trade Paperback Original, January 2010). An audio book is available from Random House. After 20 years of helping smokers quit at Columbia University, Dr. Seidman first introduced his own program to stop smoking as a featured expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Dr. Oz early in 2008. For more details about the book go to www.danielfseidman.com