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Josiah M. Hesse Josiah M. Hesse

How to Quit Smoking With the Help of Unlit Cigarettes and Pop Culture

"Mad Men" and "Sex in the City." David Bowie and Pete Doherty. Films noir and French. I immersed myself in music, TV and movies that glamorize and glorify smoking while I fingered unlit cigarettes and devoured deep-dish pizza.

8 Substance


The author in cigarettes-and-pop-culture immersion therapy. courtesy Crystal Allen Photography

I’ve hardly left my room in three days, and I’m beginning to smell the poison making its way out my pours. Both sweat and snot drip from my face like a leaky faucet as I manically perform one ab crunch after another, eyes half shut and breath heaving. Cigarettes are strategically placed around the room, some in packs like a collage of pop art, others scattered about individually like bleached finger bones. There is nowhere to look that doesn’t contain a cigarette.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

It’s dark despite the noon hour, the only light coming from my video projector, playing an episode of Mad Men across one wall. Don Draper is savoring one beautiful cigarette after another. The pleasure centers of my brain light up like a teenage boy watching pornography.

“You are free to be a smoker,” says a firm British voice coming from my stereo.

“I am free to be a smoker,” I repeat, switching to pushups.

“You always have permission to smoke,” he adds.

“I always have permission to smoke,” I repeat, standing up and eating a palmful of peanut butter straight out of the jar.

I have not had a cigarette in three days.

According to smokefree.gov‘s “Tips to Take on Your Quit Day,” I should have removed all ashtrays, lighters and cigarettes from the house, told my friends and family I’m finally quitting, distracted myself from cigarettes as much as possible, and avoided other smokers at all costs.

David Bowie's "Young Americans" album. Photo via

David Bowie’s “Young Americans” album. Photo via

For the last three days, I’ve been doing the exact opposite, stimulating my Pavlovian response systems relentlessly with the freshly opened packs of cigarettes. I tell my roommate to smoke near me without explaining why. Anything where smokers are omnipresent is on display. The LP of David Bowie’s Young Americans is propped on my desk, featuring a hazy image of the thin-white-duke smoking a fag. Below that I’ve made a Tiger Beat-style collage of the Libertines, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Rod Serling, and Keith Richards all nursing their cigarettes like chalk-stick pacifiers.

This is my own DIY version of immersion therapy, adapted from the book How to Quit Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good, by Gillian Riley, a British food writer. Despite the generic title, the book offers a counterintuitive approach to quitting. Don’t tell anyone you’ve quit. Welcome the inevitable cravings. Incessantly remind yourself that you’re always allowed to smoke if you want to.

Many experts think this immersion technique is nonsense when it comes to quitting smoking. The conventional wisdom is that you want to minimize the amount of cues you expose yourself to and the amount of things that are cues for you. Restricting smoking areas works partly because it limits cues: If you always smoke at work at your desk, your desk can be a cue. If smoking is not allowed, it can’t be.

Though with my approach I’m on a masochistic assault of cues, staring them down as often as possible, until actively not wanting a cigarette becomes as habitual as wanting one used to be. My assumption is that this psychological inundation will give me an edge over the 90% of smokers who fail at quitting.

“Feeling deprived of cigarettes means that you are not taking responsibility for your own actions,” writes Riley (or speaks, as I’m listening to the audio-book version). “In each of us, there remains the little child we once were, a record of the time when we really weren’t responsible for our actions. When you stop smoking by telling yourself ‘you are not allowed to smoke,’ the child in you becomes actively rebellious…Remember that stopping smoking is your choice, nobody is doing this to you.”

I’ve spent about 10 years as a casual smoker, flaunting my ease of only needing one or two cigarettes a day, if at all. Though once I became a full-time writer, the constant access to an ashtray on my desk drove me to a pack of American Spirits a day. It was expensive, pushed my already too-low weight down, and caused me to involuntarily hock up yellow globules. Though even the most devoted smoker experiences disgust with his habit from time to time, I don’t know how many times I woke up in the morning after a long night of writing and binge smoking, my tongue feeling like a sardine that had been pickled in foot-sweat then dried in the sun, only to light up 20 minutes later.

I’m also curious about the psychological cat’s cradle that Riley’s book describes. The teeter-totter of desire and perception. It sounded fun, like a marathon of the mind.

I pick a cigarette up off the floor, smell it, flick it as if there were burning ash to be removed. I feel a craving, and am glad I’m dealing with it by staring the cigarette down instead of daydreaming about it behind the counter at Walgreens down the street, like a forbidden fruit of knowledge (such as Homer Simpson’s “Tomacco”), or an ex-girlfriend romanticized through the lens of time and memory.

“The desire to smoke is as inevitable as a brick wall – when you stop banging your head against it, wishing it wasn’t there, it wont hurt you so much,” she says. “Accept that the desire is there, relax with it instead of fighting against it.”

Over the next week that’s what I do. I relax, seek out the cravings like a nemesis I’m secretly in love with. I endure hours of cigarette cinema projected onto my bedroom wall: Edward Murrow interviews, French new-wave films, noir films, Bob Dylan documentaries and Fight Club twice. I see Brian Jones bringing a lit match to his lips in Sympathy For The Devil, and I swoon.

There have been several campaigns over the past decade to keep cigarettes out of new movies—while also airbrushing them out of old films—following the logic that if you watch someone smoke on screen, you’ll want to smoke too. And while I think anti-smoking campaigns are internally inconsistent (attempting to influence young people that it’s cool to be smoke-free, while simultaneously asserting that you shouldn’t be influenced by a company that sells coolness), they are half right.

The image of someone holding a cigarette does make you want to smoke. If you’re already a smoker.

In a 2011 study at Dartmouth College, 17 right-handed smokers and 17 right-handed non-smokers watched clips of Nicholas Cage smoking in the film Matchstick Men, while undergoing an MRI scan. The smokers showed stimulation of portions of the brain that controlled movements of the right hand, along with centers controlling reward functions and cigarette cravings; the non-smokers did not.

This is our mirror neurons at work, the system of the brain that leads us to repeat others behaviors in order to learn something new—the way you would mimic a fitness instructor’s movements, or repeat the words of a foreign language teacher. More than just a system of mimicking behavior, though, mirror neurons are also believed to be the source of empathy in our brains. This is definitely the case for me while watching two movies in particular, Cold Turkey starring Dick Van Dyke, and Cat’s Eye with James Woods. Both are loaded with withdrawal imagery, and illustrate exactly the wrong reasons to stop smoking (according to Gillian Riley).

Cold Turkey is a 1971 black comedy featuring Bob Newhart as a dark-hearted tobacco executive who cynically offers $25 million to any town in America that can go smoke-free for 30 days. A graying, post-Poppins Van Dyke plays the local minister of an economically destitute hamlet in Iowa, and he rallies the town to take up the challenge. (In the days leading up to their quit-date, everyone is smoking furiously, a childlike fear and sadness beaming from their wide eyes.) The entire populace goes apeshit, threatening one another with knives, kicking dogs into the air and vandalizing the town they’re meant to be saving by abstaining from cigarettes.

Riley advises you never to tell anyone you’re quitting smoking because it keeps the decision to quit within your control: If you’re not doing it for anyone else, and so there’s no one you can be angry with. That’s also why she recommends keeping cigarettes on you at all times so as to avoid feeling like they’ve been taken them away from you.

James Woods has constant access to cigarettes in Cat’s Eye, but he is anything but self-motivated. The film is adapted from Stephen King’s 1978 short story, “Quitters Inc.,” in which a former Mafia syndicate gets into the stop-smoking biz, applying brutal tactics of intimidation, torture and mind-games to get their clients off the cancer sticks—permanently.

Woods doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into until it’s too late. When he’s made aware that his life is under 24/7 surveillance, he still can’t prevent himself from sneaking a cigarette while hiding under the dashboard of his car. He’s spotted and eventually kidnapped, but instead of suffering the consequences himself, he’s forced to observe his wife locked inside a metal room while the floor and walls randomly zap her with painful volts of electricity. He gets the smoking under control, but gains too much weight and is encouraged to lose it, or his wife will lose a finger

These guys have a lot more chips on the table than I do. I’m just a weirdo bachelor entertaining himself over the weekend. There are definitely intense waves of withdrawal, but I step into them aggressively, crying and grunting while sweat mixes with tears, blind with overconfidence. I perform 100 jumping jacks and then consume a Chipotle burrito my roommate picked up for me.


James Rebhorn and James Woods in “Cat’s Eye.” Photo via

At two weeks, looking back, I realize that I probably got through these first 14 days of no cigarettes by flooding my brain with dopamine via food and adrenaline via exercise.

In How To Stop Smoking, Riley stresses that if you merely transfer your addiction onto another substance, such as food, you’re not making any progress and could end up just inflating one dependence while eventually returning to the previous one—and then have them both to deal with.

It’s the addiction, not the substance: Kill the head and the body will die. But many ex-smokers merely relocate their telltale heart into another room of the house.

Last month, the Onion A.V. Club cited a Plymouth University study claiming that “playing Tetris could be a quick, effective deterrent that will keep your mind occupied whenever cravings [for cigarettes] arise, possibly helping you to kick addictions entirely,” though they go on to acknowledge that “as so many who are hooked on methadone can attest, this will do little to help you with your inevitable addiction to Tetris.”

In Cold Turkey, Dick Van Dyke and his wife curb their need to smoke by having sex as often as possible whether they’re into it or not.

I jog around the neighborhood, have pizzas delivered, consume buckets of pasta and drink gallons of OJ straight from the bottle. Anything to get those fat and salt reward centers of the brain awake again.

On average you gain around 15 pounds after quitting smoking. Some scientists believe this is because nicotine binds to food-regulating receptors in the brain, sending a “no more food” message all day. Other studies show that ex-smokers gain weight even if there’s no change in their diet on the theory that the absence of nicotine changes the bacterial chemistry of the body, leading to more energy and therefore more storage of body fat. If you don’t burn off that energy, you get fat.

I’m probably the only person I know who quit smoking hoping he’d gain weight. Over the years I’ve learned that no one enjoys hearing me complain about being reluctantly skinny. Nevertheless, I’ve been drinking weight-gaining shakes for years, and struggle to get past 140 pounds. My uneducated suspicion has been that cigarettes are depleting my oxygen levels, and therefore my muscles can’t grow. (I’m sure the Adderall doesn’t help, either.)

My dopamine receptors are like the children of divorce, and instead of explaining to them that daddy nicotine isn’t coming home anymore, I introduce them to their new stepdad—calories. Gillian Riley would not approve.

Eventually I’m forced out of my bedroom by the cruel reality of needing to make money in order to live. I bring the ashtray and cigarettes down into my basement office, staring at them grumpily but with little desire. Attempting to write is like attempting to have sex with a keyhole. I don’t necessarily want cigarettes, but there is a blind desire thumping at the back of my brain, crying out for an unknown mother. I compromise on an e-cigarette, agreeing only to use it at my desk.

I get caught up in work. I stop carrying cigarettes with me, and stop paying attention to them around the house. Return my noir films and Sex In The City DVDs to the library. Don’t follow my roommate around when she smokes.

Right now, on day 20, I really think I’ve nailed it: Test over, pencils down.

Day 25: I get an assignment to interview some local filmmakers at a bar that allows smoking called Charlie Brown’s.

As much as I hate to admit it, banning cigarettes in bars makes it a lot easier to quit—but only if you’re tactic is to avoid cigarettes. If you’re using the immersion method, then smoking in bars is the one trigger you wouldn’t be able to recondition yourself to.

At Charlie Brown’s the filmmakers are hanging out on the patio with the other smokers where there’s constant drink service. The three of them smoke incessantly as we talk, filling up the ashtrays and plucking fresh Marlboros to their mouths like greedy piglets suckling on a nico-teat. When a cigarette is offered to me, I remind myself that I have the freedom to be a smoker. I graciously accept it. Over the course of the interview, I bum two more.

After the third cigarette, a heavy nausea sets in and I bring the interview to a close. The filmmakers continue to pass a lighter back and forth, lighting their full-flavor cigarettes while I pay my tab, feeling a cold sweat drip down my back. On the walk home I stick to the alleys, stumbling on weak legs and sure that I will puke. Back at home I splash water on my face, seeing a pale and shaky reflection in the mirror. I don’t feel any guilt about smoking those three Marlboro reds, but I do feel like an IV of raw sewage has been pumping into my veins for the last few hours.

There’s always a moment during the course of a breakup when, after a few months of tears, self-loathing and proclamations to “never love again!” you inevitably reconnect with your former lover as friends, grabbing coffee or having a walk in the park. Leading up to this, you typically fear some overwhelming surge of emotion, but once face to face and engaged, the common sentiment is. “I can’t remember why I ever loved this person.” Lying in bed that night, enduring wave after wave of thick nausea, I wondered why I had spent $35 a week for years on something that could be so cruel to me.


John Hamm as Don Draper in “Mad Men.” Photo via

More than just the familiar light-headedness combined with a brief adrenaline rush and increased heart rate, I now realize that what I enjoyed about smoking was the sensation of being back on the team. I’d begun to miss the way smoking segregated me from respectable society and placed me with the careless romantics. Being a smoker in the 21st century requires the stubbornness of a fascist dictator ignoring the revolution at his doorstep. And when you’re under that kind of relentless offensive, you tend to ban together with your fellow soldiers.

Seven days have passed since that night at Charlie Brown’s. I’ve been out drinking with smokers several times since then, but haven’t felt much of an impulse to begin smoking again. I’ll go out with the intention of bumming a cigarette from someone, but once confronted with it the desire just isn’t there. I assume that when more time passes since that night with the filmmakers, I may again begin crafting an image of them that looks very appealing. But so long as the anti-smoking people don’t get their way—eradicating cigarettes from popular culture and banning them from public spaces—I think I’ll be able to continue keeping cigarettes close to my mind and away from my mouth.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to chomp down this Adderall and then head to the park for a 90-minute jog, followed by several bong-rips and a deep-dish pizza back at home, where I will listen to the Libertines and then watch another episode of Mad Men, arrogantly assuming that I’ve killed the beast of addiction.

Josiah M. Hesse is a Denver-based journalist who covers marijuana, entertainment and pop culture. His work has appeared in Westword, Colorado Public Radio and Out Front Colorado. He has also written for Laugh Spin, The Spit Take and Splitsider. HIs previous piece for substance.com was about the negative effects of marijuana legalization on Colorado users.