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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 June 2007, 10:01 GMT 11:01 UK
The fidget factor
Smoking is very much a ritual, say researchers

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

With the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces in England looming, many puffers are looking to quit. But is the ritual of holding a cigarette as addictive as inhaling?

It rests there between your fingers, pale and smooth and glowing. You keep it balanced, anticipating your own next move - and only when the time is right, you raise it to your mouth.

Every smoker and ex-smoker knows the compulsion to maintain the habit is about more than a craving for nicotine. The cigarette offers a prop with which to fidget, a ritual in which to become distracted.

On 1 July, smoking in enclosed public places will be banned across the UK
Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales already have such a ban; England's ban starts 1 July
The Magazine will count down the weeks with a series of articles about the impact of the ban on life in Britain

For the Spanish surrealist film director Luis Bunuel, the pleasure of smoking lay in being able "to touch the pack in my pocket, open it, savour the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the paper on my lips" - not in feeling his lungs fill up with fumes.

And then there is the setting. It might require a barstool and a pint glass, or a gossip magazine and a rich tea biscuit. Maybe it takes place just before the working day begins, or when the children have finally been put to bed.

An estimated 600,000 people in England are preparing to kick the addiction before it is banned in enclosed public spaces on 1 July, according to the Department of Health.

But experts say they will have to contend with more than one set of withdrawal symptoms.

'Time off'

Ann McNeil, professor in health policy and promotion at the University of Nottingham, says the routine of smoking usually becomes inseparable from the cravings.

"It's very much a ritual - sitting down, lighting the cigarette, putting it to your lips," she says. "It turns into habitual behaviour that you get used to carrying out.

"Also, doing something with your hands in situations where you are anxious can play a role.

Man smoking
Smokers 'crave cigarettes more in a pub'

"But the problem is that it becomes very difficult to disentangle that ritual from the dependence on nicotine. And that makes it harder to quit."

Studies have also indicated that smokers display higher levels of anxiety than non-smokers, adds Prof McNeill. This suggests turning to cigarettes to relieve tension and stress actually makes matters worse.

This is, of course, not to mention the tension and stress caused by smoking-related illnesses like cancer and heart disease.

But Lion Shahab, a research psychologist at University College London's Health Behaviour Unit who specialises in tobacco use, acknowledges that addiction is bound up by context.

"It's a bit like Pavlov's dog - you associate smoking with a particular environment," he says.

'Double whammy'

"Studies have shown that smokers crave cigarettes more in a pub setting than in an office setting, because that's where they would expect smoking to take place."

So how can would-be ex-smokers avoid being hit by a double whammy of withdrawal symptoms when they finally put aside their lighters?

When Spain's own smoking ban came into force in January 2006, confectionary manufacturers Chupa Chups did their best to cash in.


The brand's sales rose by 25% after it brought out a range of lollipops in cigarette carton-like packaging, offering quitters an alternative hand-to-mouth activity.

But this option may not prove appealing to smokers who are already concerned about putting on weight if they give up.

A healthier alternative is suggested by Brian Jones, a counsellor with the stop-smoking charity Quit.

He says the most important step for anyone hoping to kick their habit is to change his or her routine, so that every day does not become a series of reminders of what is missing.

"If you used to take a cigarette break, still try and have the same amount of time off - but do something different, or else you'll resent the fact that you can't smoke," he suggests.

"Go for a walk instead of reading the paper with a cigarette. Or if you used to drink a coffee while you smoked, have a fruit juice instead."

The loss of a key part of the daily routine might be a traumatic prospect for some. But with the government forcing their hands, they will never have a better opportunity to leave old habits behind.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The greatest barrier to me quitting is the fact that I lose those five-minute oases of calm and contemplation that would break up an otherwise unrelentingly hectic day. Curing oneself of nicotine addiction is really not difficult. It's the psychological aspect of quitting that appears to drive one to the brink of insanity. Nevertheless, I'll be amongst those embracing the madness come July as I attempt, once more, to can the cigarettes.
Doug Badger, Manchester

I would wholeheartedly agree with this. I have never smoked a cigarette and recently my partner has given up. He smoked roll ups and I could see how much he enjoyed the ritual of creating his cigarette, from reaching for the tin to licking the papers it was all part of the pleasure and a couple of minutes to himself after getting in from work. Now he enjoy's the playstation a little bit more!
juliette, Chester

I've ritual "smoked" since I was a teenager. I "smoke" my pen at work and an invisible cigarette when driving. However I've never actually smoked cigarettes. I find inhaling deep breathes of fresh air much healthier and more relaxing.
James, London, England

This is a very interesting and relevant article, i have now stopped smoking for 2 weeks and have found it difficult at times, I've found replacing the cigarettes with chopped Carrots worked for a while and now i wear 1 patch and if things start to get a little shakey, i stick another one on for half an hour for the nicotine boost (probably not very healthy but it gets me through). For all the people trying to give up, keep the faith!
Andrew Samson, London

I quit smoking about 6 weeks ago and the one thing that got me through it was cutting up Bic pens into cigarette shaped tubes..taking out the pen part of course, putting them into my cigarette pack and just sucking air through them. Having one now. Care for a Bic? Really worked and exemplified how the hand/mouth ritual is a great part of it...I would say about 80%. Also, lighting up some incense really helps too. Good article.
Terry Brunton, Carmel, Calif., USA

When I gave up smoking, I thought what do I do with my hands? Didn't enjoy anything associated with a cigarette for years. Getting up in the morning, a cup of tea, a meal but the hands drove me mad. Thirty years on I still think about ciggies, thats all. And I took up knitting!!!
lynne owen, epsom surrey

i find it easier to quit by sucking on hard candies and chewing gum and basically eating sweets but dont go over board with it instead of smokin a ciggarette chew a piece of gum or eat a peppermint or something or you can eat your favorite kind of hard candy but i found that minty hard candies worked the best.
krystin, palmetto,fl,usa

I feel that addiction to nicotine is nowhere near as addictive as the act of smoking. Particularly for roll-up smokers, the act of making the cigarette is part of the ritual and while I found giving up nicotine wasn't too difficult, the act of inhaling/exhaling was far harder to shake off. This article is spot-on!
Marc, Manchester

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