No ifs, no butts... how these Northern Ireland people quit smoking
As the Public Health Agency launches a campaign to get people in Northern Ireland to stop lighting up, Stephanie Bell hears why breaking the habit is so important and talks to two women who did just that.
Smoking is the single biggest cause of preventable illness and premature death in Northern Ireland, killing around 2,300 people each year. But cutting the habit and staying off tobacco can dramatically reduce the risk.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) commissions over 600 specialist Stop Smoking Services to support smokers with their attempt to quit. These free services have contributed significantly to the decline in smoking prevalence in Northern Ireland, which currently stands at 18% of the adult population.
The PHA this week launches a mass media campaign encouraging people to stop smoking, as well as promoting the Stop Smoking Services.
Highlighting the range of services available, Seamus Mullen, the PHA's health improvement strategic lead on smoking, says: "Quitting smoking is one of the biggest proactive steps we can take to improve our health and general wellbeing, with benefits also for our finances. Stop smoking services are a major building block under the 'Making Life Better' public health strategy, as targeting tobacco addiction is a key priority to enable people to make healthier choices and ensure healthier living."
The PHA says that the benefits can be felt straight away. Just 20 minutes after you stop smoking your heart rate drops to a healthier rate, circulation improves, and within two to 12 weeks your lung function increases.
After one year your risk of coronary heart disease is about half of a smoker's. After 10 years, the risk of lung cancer falls to half of someone who still smokes.
Giving up smoking can be tough and different approaches will work for different people.
While some people can quit with very little support, others find that planning ahead and making use of a Stop Smoking Service can really help them make the decision permanent.
Acknowledging the challenge to quit smokers face, Seamus adds: "We know it is not easy and it can take several attempts for many people to quit for good, but if you are determined you can do it.
"There are a range of services across Northern Ireland that have an excellent track record in helping people to quit.
"Experienced stop smoking staff provide a friendly, supportive service in a relaxed environment.
"You are four times more likely to quit with the help from our support service."
Services are offered in many community pharmacies, GP practices, HSC Trust premises, and community and voluntary organisations.
'I had started smoking at the age of 11. Thankfully, it's no longer the cool thing for children to do'
After trying more than 40 times to stop smoking, Co Antrim mum-of-two Lorna Burbage finally succeeded with the help of the PHA-funded service in her local Medicare pharmacy.
Lorna (37), from Broughshane, was a child of 11 when she started smoking and it was her own children who proved her main motivation for quitting.
She works part-time for the education board and has two children, George (9) and Holly (7).
Lorna hasn't smoked for almost two years since deciding to quit on New Year's Eve in 2017.
She says: "I began smoking when I was 11-years-old when I started high school because it was the cool thing to do. As the years went on it always shocked me how long I had been smoking.
"When I think of my own children now it is hard to even imagine that they would ever think of smoking at the age I did. Thankfully it is no longer a cool thing for children to do.
"I have tried everything over the years to help me stop from acupuncture to hypnotherapy and everything in between.
"My number one reason this time was for my kids. Holly was getting to that age when she was saying 'Mummy are you going for another smoke?' and that started to make me feel very bad.
"Then George was learning in school about the effects of smoking so my kids were one of the biggest motivators for me, plus I had just had enough."
Lorna came up with a clever way to help deal with her cravings using a cigarette box.
She explains: "I wrote down all the reasons that I wanted to stop smoking and I stuck them onto a packet of cigarettes which had only one cigarette left in it. I wrapped them up with a whole roll of sticky tape.
"If I ever got the craving so bad that I needed a smoke I just read the wee notes that I had stuck around the packet to remind me why I was stopping and why I wanted to stop - and also it would have taken me about 10 years to get into the cigarette inside so the craving would have been off me by that stage."
She also credits the support of her local pharmacy Stop Smoking Service. As well as encouragement from the service, she used nicotine patches to control her cravings and nicotine chewing gum when the urge got really bad.
Lorna says it was a full year before she felt truly free of the addiction and noticed her health improving.
She now goes to the gym three times a week and is able to do her workout without becoming breathless.
She says she is saving a fortune on perfume which she would have sprayed liberally to try and mask the smell of smoking and of course she is saving £10 a day on the cost of a packet of 20 cigarettes.
She adds: "I wish someone had told me that I was going to feel awful for a year as then I would have had a realistic timescale.
"Looking back, I don't know how I ever afforded cigarettes as being on my own with two kids there is always something for the money to go on.
"It's fantastic. I've no urge to smoke now and I feel better than I ever did."
'Cigarettes were taking over my life, I was getting severe chest infections ... for my health's sake I just had to stop smoking'
Joy Nicholl (64), from Ballymoney, had lost count of the number of times she tried to stop smoking before finally kicking the habit 19 months ago.
It was fear for her health after a string of serious chest infections that finally helped Joy to quit after 42 years.
Joy, who works as a phlebotomomist (someone who takes blood samples) in the Causeway Hospital, was supported by the smoking cessation nurse in her work.
Married to Norman (60), a storeman, with one daughter, Julie (44), she says she feels "free" since managing to quit an addiction which she readily confesses she enjoyed.
"I loved a cigarette, there's no point in saying otherwise and I honestly never thought I would ever be able to give them up," she says.
"I actually feel fantastic and it's great to be able to go out and not be looking for places to have a cigarette. There is a real freedom in giving it up.
"Society has become so anti-smoking that I actually had started to feel embarrassed lighting up in public."
Joy says she started smoking socially in her early twenties and was soon going through 10 cigarettes a day - and in the past few years was smoking 20 a day.
She had been suffering severe chest infections three to four times a year for a number of years which she knew was being exacerbated by her smoking.
Concerned about her health, she finally decided to quit.
She says: "The addiction of the cigarettes just took over my whole life.
"I was getting regular chest infections and they were really severe and I had to have weeks off work. I decided that for my health's sake I just had to stop smoking. I just couldn't go on any longer.
"I work in the hospital so I was always in touch with the smoking cessation team and they gave me great support. They don't judge you if you fall off the wagon, they just tell you to never stop trying.
"I decided to do it one day at a time so as not to put myself under pressure. The nurse was there to encourage me if I felt I was struggling."
Joy has seen a huge improvement not just in her health but in her bank balance. In fact, she saved so much from not forking out £10 a day for a packet of cigarettes that after a year she was able to buy herself a car at £3,500. She hasn't had a chest infection since giving up and now walks five miles every day, something she couldn't do when she smoked.
She adds: "I would have been on my second or third chest infection this year and I haven't had any which is amazing. Also I had a rattling in my chest which has gone.
"My energy levels are better, I get up earlier everyday and my skin is also much better.
"It did take about a year for me to feel better but I feel great and I can't believe it myself that I have actually stopped smoking. I know I will never smoke again.
"My advice to anyone trying is to not give up is that you can do it.
"Honestly, no one loved a cigarette more than me, and if I can do it anyone can."
Tips for helping you to give up smoking
Make a date to give up - and stick to it.
Make a plan. Think about what could help you stop smoking, such as using a nicotine-replacement product, and have it ready before the date you plan to stop.
Get support from your local stop smoking service.
Also, let your family and friends know that you're quitting. Some people find that talking to friends and relatives who have stopped can be helpful.
Keep busy to help take your mind off cigarettes. Try to change your routine, and avoid the shop where you normally buy cigarettes.
Treat yourself. If you can, use the money you're saving by not smoking to buy yourself something special.
The PHA's stop smoking website www.stopsmokingni.info has been created with the involvement of smokers and ex-smokers to support people in their quit attempt.
The site has information on the benefits of quitting, stop smoking aids, and Stop Smoking Services across Northern Ireland, and you can also order your free Quit Kit to help give you the best chance of success in becoming smoke free.
The website has an interactive map to locate services.