Outsmart Your Addiction

Photo: Peter Rad

The brand-new New York Easyway center for smoking cessation is two flights up an ordinary building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The stark white room couldn’t have less personality—25 office chairs are arranged before a podium, ashtrays next to them. The ashtrays have the look of curious artifacts from another time, which they are. Fourteen autographed celebrity photographs crowd the wall: Johnny Cash, Kate Hudson, and Jerry Hall stare down at us. For every celebrity who might have made smoking seem gorgeous, there’s one who’s been through Easyway: Anthony Hopkins is on the cover of the brochure, and Richard Branson introduces the video. Damian O’Hara, the man charged with spreading Easyway throughout North America, tells me, “We did all the Stones’ wives.” “What about Keith?” I ask. “Oh, he’s a hopeless case,” says O’Hara.

Though its four-month-old Brooklyn center and another in L.A. are the first two in the States, Easyway has been a fixture in Britain for more than twenty years, and Allen Carr is something of a folk hero there: His Easy Way to Stop Smoking has now sold over 7 million copies and been translated into twenty languages. There are 71 centers in 30 countries treating some 50,000 smokers a year—most of whom are nonsmokers now.

O’Hara used to work in tobacco marketing, running the RJ Reynolds account in Asia and the Rothmans account in the Middle East. “Makes this kind of work karma cleansing,” he says pleasantly. He’s well suited to his calling—in a single sentence, he’s able to both flatter me about my habit and offer a tangible hope that I might quit: “We’re particularly strong with the no-hopers. The draconian no-smoking rules in New York have weeded out the wimps and left the hard-core—and that’s who we’re for.”

I hope he’s right, because I’ve tried to quit before, and I’ve brought a friend who is even more desperate to stop than I am. Anthony Perullo, another lapsed nonsmoker, recently tried to fight his urges by scratching his stomach with keys, and before the seminar starts he lifts up his shirt to show me an impressive-looking scar.

Then the room is called to order. “Your first instruction is to smoke,” O’Hara says. “Smoke your face off.”

I realized, for the umpteenth time, that my smoking had gotten out of hand on my wedding day. Still enjoying the plumpness of having quit in the first place, I was smoking out of the side door of the church on 73rd Street with my best man when I realized I hadn’t mentioned my recidivism to the wife-to-be, and was expected to kiss her in front of some 250 of our nearest and dearest, with smoke fresh on my lips. Of course she knew, but that wasn’t the point. After the ceremony, bagpipers led us down Madison Avenue to the reception, with our guests trailing behind. There are photographs of the event, everyone happy, but I know what I was thinking, especially when I saw the band chain-smoking outside the reception hall—When can I ditch this broad and light up?

That was in June. I had started up again in April, after visiting my father in the cancer ward of a hospital in Athens, Greece. (He survived and is happily back to smoking.) The hallways were alive with cigarettes, and my fifteen months of healthiness disappeared in a puff. Within days, I was walking the dog at three in the morning, smoking three cigarettes in as many minutes.

The plan was to stop after the next big event, but a lot of them occurred in rapid succession: I moved apartments, got married, started a new job, and had a child. The day my wife and I brought our daughter home, my body was swaddled in patches, my jaws had a wad of gum clenched in them, and I lasted fourteen hours before bursting out of the house and into the bodega across the street. Relief.

So here I am, on the cusp of 40, with a newborn in the house, a new wife, a new life, and an old habit. I’ve smoked, more on than off, for 25 years. I grew up smoking on airplanes and in movie theaters, on the subway and in any home I visited. Twenty to 40 nails in the coffin every day, that many little moments of self-hatred or blessed relief. From the ages of 14 to 39, it’s been the one consistency.

The trouble with starting after you’ve quit is that you’re not so much enjoying smoking again as putting off the horror of stopping all over again. Almost as consistent as my smoking addiction, to use the modern parlance for everything pleasant, is my addiction to quitting. I’ve tried the lozenges, the gum, the patch, and the hypnotist; I’ve flown to Boston to meet with Yefim Shubenstov, “the Mad Russian”; tried the acupuncturist’s needle behind the ear; dealt with the side effects of a Zyban prescription; and sat through a ten-day silent-meditation retreat. I’ve tried the homeopathic remedies, have a lifetime supply of toothpicks, and every evening, like clockwork, I throw out a half-pack and a new Bic lighter. Prayers, promises, recriminations, and lots of teeth-brushing follow.

I’ve enjoyed two separate smoke-free years in the past decade, and both times was surprised at the advantages. The oysterlike globs of phlegm stopped appearing, I no longer spat blood at regular intervals throughout the day, and the walk up to my apartment stopped feeling like an endurance contest. My chronic asthma even ceased to feel quite so life-threatening. Although my plan to eat a cake for every wanted smoke soon had some adverse effects, even the dentist chimed in with congratulations. Never had not doing something seemed so active.

But after a year, a day, or an hour, I always start up again, baffled at my joyless self-destruction. With everything to lose, and nothing to gain, I sign on for the five-hour Easyway seminar on the afternoon of Saturday, December 9. With that, I abandon my heroes: Tom Stoppard outside Lincoln Center, Kiefer Sutherland saving the world in between takes, the inveterate Jack Nicholson, and Johnny Depp, who once joked (paraphrasing Denis Leary) that he looked forward to a tracheotomy so that he could smoke two cigarettes at the same time. And I cast my lot with a tamer crowd: Gwyneth Paltrow, Christy Turlington, Mayor Bloomberg, and the avid nonsmoker Adolf Hitler.

Once O’Hara has the room lighting up, he starts. As we smoke, O’Hara drills into our minds that we do not like smoking. The room smokes back at him, and he goes on: Smoking does not alleviate boredom, aid concentration, or help one to relax. He makes his case convincingly, and the 25 of us agree. There is no pleasure involved in taking a drug that does not get you high, that costs a fortune, and that either kills you or severely affects your health. We puff and we nod. On the contrary, smoking is a cunningly designed trap that constantly causes you to feel deprived from the last cigarette you smoked. You receive no boost at all from smoking, you only relieve the withdrawal symptom from the previous cigarette. And the appearance of the relief perpetuates the illusion. The relief you feel when you smoke is the way nonsmokers feel all the time. And that, in a nutshell, is it. That was Carr’s eureka moment back in 1983.

O’Hara asks everyone in the room when we most like to smoke. We shout out our favorites, and he writes them on a makeshift blackboard: after a meal, after sex, after a plane ride, after working out, after holding a screaming infant for four hours. One by one, he dispenses with the idea that we actually enjoy any of those cigarettes; we are merely alleviating the feeling of deprivation, perpetuating a vicious circle.

The spiel is leavened with facts and statistics. He informs us that what tobacco executives refer to as “nicotine-delivery devices” mete out between .5 and 2.5 milligrams of nicotine at a time, a dose “expertly engineered to make you want 21 cigarettes a day.”

Slowly we begin to think of ourselves as nonsmokers, pitying those still caught in the trap. Everyone is still smoking, but we’re also patting ourselves on the back for our clever, life-enhancing decision.

The talk is also expertly engineered, gearing up with identification, empathy, and stabs at humor. We’re willing to agree with everything he’s said, partly out of desperation, but also to get to the meat of the matter—how do you actually stop? Five hours is a long time to listen to anyone, but slowly the tone and wording change, and we begin to think of ourselves as nonsmokers, pitying those still caught in the trap. Everyone is still smoking, but we’re also patting ourselves on the backs for our clever, life-enhancing decision.

Four hours, twenty minutes, and a full pack of cigarettes in, it is time for our real last-ever cigarette. The act comes and goes with little significance, and as I look around the room, there seems to be a sense of relief. (Whether it’s over the fact that we’ve finally quit or the hope that O’Hara might actually stop talking, I can’t tell.) We all throw our packs and lighters into a little trash can. We close our eyes to make a commitment to ourselves. We are instructed to be happy. Another hour of encouragement passes before we leave, including a period spent sitting in darkness with a visualization exercise that has something to do with a garden, a waterfall, and clean, fresh lungs. We are congratulated, and the room exits very quickly.

I spend precisely 48 hours feeling surprised at how effective the afternoon has been. Then I’m punching the cabinetry. I check in with Anthony, who started again almost immediately. He feels strongly that that session was all about chain-smoking you into a state of sickness; he’s angry, and he feels betrayed. He calls O’Hara and tells him that he wakes up three times a night to keep smoking. O’Hara responds that in seven years he’d never heard of such a thing and offers to honor the money-back guarantee. Anthony rages some more: “There is no easy way to stop smoking!”

I call the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, the Centers for Disease Control, Nicotine Anonymous, and the New York Bureau of Tobacco Control. They’ve never heard of Carr or the Easyway, and three of them echo Anthony’s final words to O’Hara, insisting, “There is no easy way!” I look into the company’s way with figures: For years, Easyway claimed a success rate of more than 90 percent—a figure based on the fact that 5 to 10 percent of clients took advantage of the money-back guarantee. More-objective research puts Easyway’s success at 53.3 percent. Then I come to the huge news story in England last year: Carr died of lung cancer on November 29, ten days before my session in December.

No mention of this was made in the seminar I attended, and I’m filled with questions: Did his illness come from spending two decades locked in small rooms with dozens of chain-smokers smoking in his face? Did he die fulfilled? Why bother quitting if you’re going to die anyway?

I follow up with O’Hara by asking why Carr’s death wasn’t mentioned in the session. “It’s not really an active decision one way or the other,” he tells me, clearly at a loss to be speaking without statistics or enthusiasm. “Allen was always very clear that it was the method, not he, that was exceptional. Personally, I’m still getting my head around it.” After his diagnosis, Allen Carr himself said, “Since I stopped smoking … I have been the happiest man in the world. I still feel the same way.” As for the irony of his dying from the ultimate smoking illness, O’Hara is emphatic: “It’s not a question of health, it’s a question of quality of life.”

I’m teetering, and then at one point during the holidays, I find myself driving three miles in a storm to smoke under a Dunkin’ Donuts awning. New Year’s comes and goes and what could have been a night of smarmy righteousness is not. The nice thing about failure of any type is that it’s focusing. The day after New Year’s, I do what Carr tells you not to do: I slap a patch on my arm. I load the wife, the kid, and the dog into a car and drive for six hours. The day goes by without incident, then another, and another. I keep the patch on, like a safety net, but I also return to Carr’s book, finding his reasonable, emphatic turns of phrase heartening. Carr insists that quitting can be fun, and it certainly is interesting: the patina of nervous energy, the steady hunger, the sudden smells and tastes, the happy bouts of rage. Reading him now, so soon after his death, renders his enthusiasm for life that much more effective.

Easyway has all of the particulars in place to make a successful translation from England to America: celebrity endorsements, a high success rate, and giddily enthused therapists. I’m tempted to see them as hucksters using real smoke and mirrors to profit from desperation, but since the book was published in America, in 1999, I’ve seen a half-dozen friends, respectable smokers all, stop right after finishing it. The only complaint about the system is that it isn’t easy enough, and the one failing has more to do with America than with the program: The word easy has connotations of pampering and inactivity here, easy like Sunday morning. It might not be easy in an American sense to stop, but it’s certainly possible, and this is where Carr shines. Ex-smokers whine so much about stopping that it makes the rest of us think it’s impossible. Carr lets you know that’s a lie.

Then again, anyone who is willing to pay $400, trek out to Greenpoint, and listen to a stranger talk for over five hours has pretty much made up his mind. And I don’t know about you, but smoking had become such hard work that, frankly, this is the easy way.

What Have You Done to Quit?
Asked of smokers found outside midtown office buildings.

“I tried the patch for four years, but then my mother got breast cancer and I started back up.”
—Investment banker, 39

“I tried the patch, but it itched so much! I would definitely try hypnosis, but I’d need someone with me so the guy doesn’t say, ‘When the bell rings, take off all your clothes.’”
—Executive assistant, 37

“I went to this guy in Boston—‘the Mad Russian’—that my doctor told me about. You go in this huge room with lots of other people, he holds his hand over your head, and you just think about quitting. I stopped for six weeks.”
—Sales associate, 45

“I read a book by Allen Carr called the Easy Way to Stop Smoking. It lasted three months. Then I was at an expensive dinner and someone offered me a cigar and that was it.”
—Investment banker, 37

“In the process now. I got that book from Allen—what’s his name? Somebody in the office gave it to me. So, hopefully.”
—Trader, 43

“Allen Carr for me. I read the book and quit for nine months. I don’t know why it works, but I believe it.”
—Headhunter, 29

“I have quit! I cut it down to two a day!”
—Technology manager, 47

“Nothing. I just wish.”
—Programmer, 39

Outsmart Your Addiction