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Why Nadia Sawalha is glad she finally stubbed out habit of a lifetime

It took years for the Loose Women star to finally 'break up' with cigarettes - but, she tells Prudence Wade, she's so glad she kept trying

Staying strong: Nadia Sawalha has finally given up smoking
Staying strong: Nadia Sawalha has finally given up smoking

By Prudence Wade

For presenter, actor and cook Nadia Sawalha, one of the most meaningful and enduring relationships of her life has been with smoking.

She smoked for years, and knows just how tough it can be to finally kick the habit - even referring to cigarettes as her "bad boy lover".

As we've come to expect from Loose Women, Sawalha isn't one to mince her words. She's brutally honest - even about the things she feels guilty about - but always with her trademark sense of humour; her sentences are often punctuated with frequent, loud bursts of laughter.

Here, London-born Sawalha (54) talks about how finally broke up with smoking, and why it was one of the best things she's ever done...

Her relationship with smoking...

Sawalha tried her first cigarette at about eight years old. "They sold them in newsagent's individually for children," she says. "We thought it was just the coolest thing on the planet - buying this fag and choking ourselves to death on them."

When she was 16 or 17, she started smoking properly. "It took me a long time to get used to it because it's so disgusting, but then when I fell in love, it was a very deep and meaningful relationship for many years with a bad boy lover," she says, adding with an explosive laugh:

"I knew I had to break up with him, but I just couldn't face it because the sex was so great!"

When pregnant with her first daughter - Maddie, now almost 17 - she says giving up alcohol was tough because she was "quite a wild chick", but giving up smoking "was so hard because I was partying a lot - lots of vodka nights with me and my husband smoking all night long".

She admits: "I couldn't just give up immediately when I was pregnant, and I've always had real guilt about that. I was having a sneaky half fag here and there - I wasn't still totally on my habit, but it shows you the power of the addiction.

"I gave up alcohol, I ate brilliantly, I actually lost weight when I was pregnant because I was eating so healthily - but those bloody fags, they still called me."

How she finally broke up with smoking...

Sawalha tried just about everything to quit smoking - even going down some of the more outlandish routes. "I went to an all-day workshop, where you sit for four hours in these massive smoking chairs with about 10 other people and you smoke solidly for four hours while they hypnotise you," she says.

Unfortunately, this had no effect on the presenter, who confesses with a wry laugh: "I then went down to the train station in Wimbledon and had a fag!"

Even though she really wanted to quit - especially as she was trying to get pregnant - she admits it was a real struggle. It was only when she saw a counsellor about 15 years ago, and delved into the deeper thought processes underlying her reliance on cigarettes, that her mentality truly changed.

"He gave me the tools, the consciousness needed to quit," explains Sawalha - and she realised how she was relying on cigarettes as a coping mechanism, lighting up a fag instead of saying what she really wanted to say. "I gave it up by rethinking the whole thing," she says.

What happened next...

When Sawalha finally stopped smoking for good, she says her whole life changed. "A smoke and a drink go so beautifully together, so I cut down on my drinking," she says. "I started exercising more because I could breathe better. Within 10 days to two weeks, your skin looks completely different, your eyes look sparkling and clear again - the cosmetic benefits of giving up smoking are extraordinary."

And most importantly, she says: "I was without the fear of death."

Sawalha feels compelled to talk about her struggles with smoking, and knows it's important to recognise that quitting can be hard - but worth it.

"You have to recognise that it's an addiction, and it's an enormous job to stop," she says.

"It's difficult for me to say that I used to have sneaky fags when I was pregnant with my daughter - I'm embarrassed about that, I feel terrible guilt about that. But I say it because I want to show people how hard it is, and don't fear judgement, because judgement and shame will push you further back and make you more secretive."

The fact her daughter Maddie is now 16 - the age Sawalha was when she properly started smoking - has made her even more keen to support the Stoptober campaign, which challenges people to quit smoking for the month of October.

Being honest about her journey to quitting, and encouraging others to be open about their own goals to kick the habit is something she really believes in: "A problem shared is a problem halved."

This month, Stoptober is encouraging smokers to "split up" with smoking. For free support and tips on how to quit, visit nhs.uk/oneyou/for-your-body/quit-smoking/stoptober

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