Kicking Butts

Kicking Butts

Kicking Butts

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Aug. 9 2000 3:00 AM

Kicking Butts

Our Marlboro man tests the top stop-smoking products. 

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I have smoked a pack a day for about 15 years. I began with Camel straights, moved to Camel Filters, switched to Marlboro reds, and then to Camel Lights, which I've smoked regularly for the past 10 years or so.

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This is not a good thing. Smoking kills you. No, honestly, it does. For years I treated this as a joke. Someone would mention the deleterious effects of smoking and I would pretend to be shocked and begin to cite evidence from the now defunct Tobacco Institute, which argued that there was no proof that cigarettes were harmful. For years I labored under the impression that this was clever.

But a few months back I decided that not only should I quit smoking, but that I should get someone else to pay for it. Slate kindly agreed and I went shopping for the best way to quit, starting with the oldest cure, hypnotism, and working my way through nicotine substitutes before consuming the new, high-performance tobacco-busting pharmaceuticals.

Hypnotism
Hypnotists charge between $110 and $350 a session to help smokers stop. After interviewing a few, I settled on a nice-sounding lady who works out of her apartment and claims success rates of 60 percent to 70 percent after two or three $110 sessions.

We began with the general questions. How much did I know about hypnotism? Was I frightened of being hypnotized? Then, to test my susceptibility to hypnosis, she had me raise my arms to shoulder level and then bend my elbows at 90 degrees with my palms facing each other. She told me to imagine a current or a thread connecting my hands together. During this hand-jive she spoke in a soothing and encouraging tone of voice.

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Think about your hands coming together, she said. Don't actually move them—just think about it, feel the connection between your palms pulling your hands together. Was I supposed to be using The Force? Then my hands began to slowly move together through no volition of my own except that I was thinking about it. My hypnotist praised me and said I was highly susceptible to hypnosis. I suspected as much, given that I am easily swayed by suggestion. I can't help it. I'm a victim.

Relax, she said, using that soothing voice. Relax, starting from your toes and work through to all of your muscles. Then she began to talk to my right hand. That's right, she talked to the hand, quizzing it through a lengthy series of yes/no questions. This went on for a while, until my interrogated hand indicated that part of me wanted to quit smoking, but part of me didn't.

While under hypnosis, I felt conscious and in control. I could have stood up and walked out of the room at any time, but I chose not to. Was I hypnotized or just pretending to be hypnotized? At what point does pretending something is happening inside your mind cross over into something actually happening inside your mind?

At session's end I lit a cigarette as I walked down the steps.

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Session 2 started the same as Session 1: We free-associated about smoking, relaxed my muscles, and chitchatted with my hand. Then she told me to imagine a room where I felt extremely safe and comfortable, decorating it however I wished. I went with a London men's club leather chair thing with a fireplace, a few bookcases, and a buffet. I've never been to a London men's club, but I imagine I would feel safe in one. She then instigated a conversation among the different levels of my psyche about why I smoked, why I wanted to quit, and why I didn't.

Deeper hypnosis followed, and she made me a cassette with a daily meditation on it. I was to concentrate on feeling clean, on breathing fresh air. The next afternoon the cravings sent me out of control and I bought a pack. I listened to the tape that night while smoking a cigarette.

Nicotine Gum
Still determined to quit, I abandoned the twilight land of hypnotism for Western science, which has brought us such miracles as the toaster oven, the remote control, and now, nicotine gum (Nicorette two-week starter kit, $49.99 at Drugstore.com).

Nicorette's warning label says, "DO NOT CHEW LIKE ORDINARY GUM." Good advice. This ain't gum, boys and girls, this is a nicotine-replacement system coming in 2 milligram and 4 milligram dosages. You're supposed to start with the 4 milligram size if you smoke more than 24 cigarettes a day, stay on that for a few weeks, then step down to the lesser dosage, then stop altogether. You chomp on Nicorette until you get a peppery feeling in your mouth, after which you park the gum in your cheek, chewing only occasionally.

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If you chew Nicorette like ordinary gum, you risk nicotine poisoning, or at least nausea. But when you crave a cigarette, the threat of nicotine poisoning seems as remote as lung cancer. The main drawback of Nicorette is the burning sensation crawling down your throat. It's like swallowing the juice from chewing tobacco. You can minimize the burn, however, if you chew the gum a little bit at a time.

Get the mint flavor. Don't even experiment with the unflavored variety, which tastes like a cross between petroleum jelly and cayenne pepper. If the nicotine doesn't make you sick, the flavor certainly will.

On the first day of my Nicorette regimen, I had a piece of gum in my mouth almost all the time. It worked, too. When I wanted a cigarette, I had a piece of gum. When cravings rose, I chewed more heartily, releasing more nicotine. I still wanted a cigarette, but I didn't need one. I was amazed at how good breathing felt. On the second day my smoker's cough went away. On the third day I regained my sense of smell.

The world was filled with odors. The train station smelled of urine and oil, the cafeteria became a confused blend of smells—from overcooked cauliflower to lasagna—that made my mouth water.

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My first slip came that Saturday, the fourth day, when I joined some friends for a few drinks before dinner. I had a puff. After dinner we went to a bar, and I had a couple of cigarettes. The gum didn't seem to be able to control the cravings once I had a few drinks in me.

I held out for a few more days. But the following Tuesday was too stressful. Nothing that out of the ordinary, but I began to snap at people and realized (or rationalized) that unless I had a cigarette I would end up inflicting bodily harm on my boss. As much as the latter was attractive I decided smoking was better than an assault charge.

The Patch
The NicoDerm CQ patch system, another nicotine-replacement system, promises to whittle down even the heaviest smoker's cigarette habit in 10 weeks. You start with the "Step 1" dosage of 21 milligram for six weeks. Then on to "Step 2" (14 milligrams for two weeks) and "Step 3" (7 milligrams for two weeks) before quitting altogether. (Two weeks of the "Step 1" dosage costs $45.99 at Drugstore.com.)

NicoDerm CQ comes in metallic sealed packages with warnings about washing your hands after you open it up. I imagined myself as the Typhoid Mary of nicotine addiction, spreading it through a handshake.

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You must place the patch on a clean, relatively hairless place on your body and wear it 16 hours a day (24 hours a day if you wake up frantic for a cigarette). I opted for the inside of my upper arm, figuring it was easy to reach, yet unobservable. It was a pain, literally. While my cravings were diminished, the skin upon which patch rested began to hurt. It ached constantly throughout the day, so I moved it to my side. Wherever I placed the patch, it left the skin bright red.

The patch also engendered odd dreams. Sexual dreams. Now, I don't mind the occasional reminder that all the equipment is in working order, mind you, but it seemed a little excessive.

After a day of being patched on my torso, I moved the devise to the outside of my upper thigh. While the ache wasn't as intense, the redness remained. After two days of this, health reasons dictated that I begin smoking again.

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Bupropion Bupropion (sold under the trade names names of Zyban and Wellbutrin) is the first pill approved by the FDA for treating nicotine addiction. You take the drug for a week or so, let it build up in your system, quit smoking, then stay on the drug for a few months to kill the cravings. A doctor's prescription is required. Zyban costs $79.73 for 60 150 milligram tabs at Drugstore.com and must be taken twice a day.

I've always been a big fan of uppers, and bupropion gave me a groovy little boost through the day. And there's no crash afterward. A wonderful drug.

However, I can report visual side effects. After two days I found myself lying in bed and staring out the window at the brick building across the street. I spent a half-hour studying the patterns of shadow and light. When I looked at my girlfriend next to me, I had the urge to grab a sketchbook and get the shadow of her thigh down on paper. Such an urge is so rare that I don't own a sketchbook. The effect faded over a day or two.

The cravings? What cravings? Bupropion is so subtle that I cut my smoking by half before my quit date. When I did stop altogether I still had the desire for a cigarette, but nowhere near the desire I had while quitting with the other methods.

But once again a drink did me in. Four days after stopping I had a few drinks, and then a few more, and then a pack of cigarettes. The obvious lesson? I have a drinking problem that makes me smoke. Let's see, there's AA, the Betty Ford Clinic, and didn't I read something about shock therapy recently?