January 1, 2019

Quitting smoking: cutting down smoking vs cold turkey

by Man with a tattooed arm, seen from behind, rubbing his neck

Learn how to wean off smoking cigarettes to live a healthier life


If you’ve decided to quit smoking, congratulations! This is the single best thing you can do to safeguard your health.

Now the question is how to go about breaking your nicotine addiction. Is it better to quit smoking cold turkey or gradually?

There’s some dramatic appeal to quitting cold turkey — going from your usual cigarette consumption to no nicotine at all. It may seem like a faster way to becoming smoke-free than gradually weaning yourself off cigarettes.

But going cold turkey is harder, and you may be less likely to achieve your goal, says Hilary Tindle, M.D., a physician scientist and founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Tobacco, Addictions and Lifestyle.

Yes, some people quit smoking this way, so it’s not impossible. But “our first recommendation is not cold turkey,” Tindle said. Studies have found that people are two to three times more likely to be smoke-free a year after their quit date with a combination of counseling and medications, compared with those who don’t use those tools.

Many people find that the easiest (or perhaps the least difficult) way to quit is weaning off cigarettes while using nicotine replacement medications and some kind of counseling or support group.

The most common of these medications are nicotine replacement products, including over-the-counter ones such as the patch, gum and lozenges. There are prescription medications designed to help people quit, too; ask your doctor about these.

Inhaled through a cigarette, nicotine is addictive. Not so with the nicotine replacement products, which deliver nicotine safely. When smokers stop smoking, they typically feel the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal: irritability, anxiety, depression, increased appetite and more. The patch, gum or lozenges contain smaller amounts of nicotine than cigarettes. They take the edge off withdrawal symptoms and make it easier to deal with cravings.

The traditional way to quit is to choose a quit date and stick to it. Your quit date can be the start of your efforts to quit, the day you stop smoking cigarettes completely or start tapering off cigarettes. Either way, you’ll probably do better using nicotine replacement starting on your quit date rather than trying this without the patch, gum or lozenges. They’ll soften your withdrawal symptoms. Nicotine replacement is typically used for two to three months, with the nicotine dose gradually decreasing over that time.

Another tactic is to gradually cut back, called the “cut down to quit” method. Using this strategy, you cut down on the number of cigarettes smoked each day for a certain period of time before your quit date, and use only nicotine replacement – no cigarettes – from the quit date on.

More and more research shows that the patch, gum and lozenges can be used safely while you are still smoking (but are cutting back). However, going this route should be done with the help of your doctor or health care provider.

Nicotine replacement, plus counseling or a support group, together give you your best chances of quitting. But perseverance is important, too! The average smoker tries to quit five times before finally breaking a nicotine addiction. So if you give in to the urge to smoke a cigarette a few days or weeks into your quit attempt, forgive yourself, and keep trying.

And if going cold turkey, especially without meds, is not going well, “give yourself a break,” Tindle advises. “Use the tools available.”

To work with a counselor to help you create a plan for quitting, call the Tennessee Tobacco Quitline, 1-800-784-8669, or use it online at



Those at highest risk for lung cancer are ages 55 to 74; and current or former smokers with 30 or more pack years. See if lung cancer screenings are right for you.

37 thoughts on “Quitting smoking: cutting down smoking vs cold turkey”

  1. Judy Akers says:

    I quit cold Turkey, been almost 2 years, I would never do do that again, I went thru the worst 2 years stayed sick , blood pressure went out of whack, finally getting straightened out a little, If I ever decided to start smoking again, which I never think I would, Id never quit it the next time, cause I wouldnt go thru that again for nothing.

    1. Cynthia Manley says:

      Good for you quitting and staying quit. I am sorry you had such a rough time of it. Nicotine addiction is strong and seeking help if they need it. Best wishes for a continued smoke-free life!

    2. Judy Akers says:

      Im still Smoke free , will be three years in August, Quitting cold turkey was very hard , Don’t Plan on ever picking up one again!! I dont think no more, lol!

    3. Tammy Mathews Burkett says:

      I’m going on my 6th day and my blood pressure is going crazy! You’d think it’d get better by putting the ciggeretes down! So proud y’all for quitting!! I keep telling myself I’m a non smoker..

  2. BRENDA says:

    I smoked from age 12, yes I said 12, stopped when I got pregnant, start right back. When the price started rising my son quit. I was proud of him but continued to smoke. I had quit working and was depending on him to buy them. So he announces one day. Momma I quit cause they were getting too high to buy, so i won’t be buying you anymore. Needless to say I was a little upset but couldn’t argue with him. I was ill going through withdrawals. Probably was the best way for me to quit. I had been a smoker for 30 plus years. My point is it can be achieved regardless if the method you choose. It takes a LOT, I mean a LOT of willpower and praying. Good luck to all!!!!!!

    1. Linda Zettler says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Brenda, and congrats to you — and your son – for kicking the habit!

  3. Kimmie Williams says:

    I quit cold turkey and did just fine I wasn’t a nice person to be around and gained 25 I lbs but I’ll take that over smoking any day it is possible to quit cold turkey with no side effects..Dec 4 will be 3 years for me

    1. Linda Zettler says:

      Congratulations on your upcoming third anniversary of being smoke-free, Kimmie!

  4. Brenda says:

    I also quit cold turkey, I think it’s the way to go. I tried “weening” many times…but it seems it always ends up circling back around…my vote is cold turkey – 7 years clean!

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Congratulations on being tobacco-free for so long! That’s fantastic.

  5. gingersharp says:

    I quit smoking cold turkey 28 days ago. Some days are better than others. This is my second time to quit. I really want this time be the last time I go through this. I tell myself when I have a strong urge to smoke to give it a few minutes and it will go away. Also, I tell myself, “I do not smoke. I am a non-smoker”. I have smoked for many years and know I have to quit for my health. I also try to focus on how bad cigarettes are for me, when I feel the strongest urges to smoke.

  6. Melissa says:

    Where do you find counseling? My fiancé is a heavy smoker. I’d like to see him quit. I know that’s a decision he has to make. But I’d love to help him when/if he quits.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Hi, Melissa. Great question. Your best bet is calling the Tennessee Tobacco Quitline, at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Here’s their info online: They’ve got details on that website about the services they offer, but yes, counseling is a big part of it. We wish your fiancé well.

  7. Barbara Hackett says:

    I smoked for many years. I quit cold turkey and have been smoke free for 14 years. I tried many different smoke aides
    and nothing worked until I made a decision that I would never buy a pack of cigarettes again. It took making that decision and a pact with my self that did it. Best thing I ever did for myself. I’m not even tempted to have a cigarette.
    Most people I know quit successfully by going cold turkey.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Congratulations on remaining smoke-free for so long. Quitting smoking is a big accomplishment. Thank you for proving to others that even though it’s challenging, it can be done.

  8. Thomas says:

    Congratulations on remaining smoke-free for so long everybody !
    it looks like almost every body went cold turkey and with success ,

  9. Sohana Jesy says:

    this is a really awesome post. i have more benefited from your website. thank you so much for this necessary information

  10. Drew says:

    My wife started quitting two days ago. She is doing the cutting back method. 1/4 cigarette in the morning and 1/4 cigarette in the evening. I clip the cigarettes my self. She also takes Wellbutrin to help with anxiety. She has said her cravings are less of a problem to deal with on Wellbutrin.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      That’s great that she is making progress. We wish her well!

  11. Alichael says:

    I keep hearing how difficult it is when quitting cold turkey, that people can feel pretty rough physically for up to an entire month after their last smoke, and still fight cravings for another several months after that. That’s why I’m going to taper off gradually. In spite of the difficulty it still may be, I’m totally freaked out about lung cancer, dealing with a disease where you have trouble breathing and that the only way out of that is horrible chemotherapy, and even then the chances of being cured are less than 50℅, not the way I want to go (since I’m much more afraid of the suffering part than the dying part. I’m not as scared of dying if it’ll be quick and painless, but lung cancer is definitely not quick or painless).

    Anyway, this is how I plan on tapering off: instead of measuring by cigarettes, I’m going to measure by puffs. Right now, I take more than 3 puffs everytime I smoke. So this is how I’ll do it: (week 1) 3 puffs per smoke every 2 hours for a week, (week 2) 3 puffs every 3 hours for half a week, 3 puffs every 4 hours for half a week, (week 3) 2 puffs every 4 hours for half a week, 2 puffs every 5 hours for half a week, (week 4) 2 puffs every 6 hours for half a week, 2 puffs when I wake up in morning and 2 puffs before bed for half a week plus 2 more days. Then, it will officially be 30 days since I started my taper off program. Then for the next 30 days, I will chew nicotine gum and gradually lessen the amount of that over the next 30 days. So, 60 days later, I will be free of all nicotine permanently. I feel that I will cut down on a lot of discomfort and irritability by doing this 2 month quitting program. And then, hopefully, I’ll have saved myself from lung cancer, fingers crossed

  12. Alichael says:

    When I mentioned that my first week of my quitting program, I would take 3 puffs every 2 hours for that week, I forgot to mention how much I smoke now. I smoke somewhere between 4 and 6 puffs every 1 to 2 hours now, so switching to 3 puffs every 2 hours will be my first step forward.

  13. Tom says:

    I had a major heart attack and rush to hospital for open heart surgery at 2 am 4 years ago. Out of the hospital within 4 days days. Did not smoke at all for a year. No withdrawals. Then a major family crisis arose and I started again. Been smoking two years now and just quit last week. If I continued smoking I would die. No doubts. So 6 days and I feel much better, no withdrawals, no cravings, no nervousness! Should have never started again. I feel like this is my last opportunity to live. I encourage everyone to stop while you can. You may never have the chance again.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Tom, thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sorry you had such dramatic ups and downs — but congratulations on quitting again and embracing life and good health.

  14. Sarah Jordan says:

    I quit cold turkey never look back I feel great it’s been two weeks now and I don’t want to smoke stil trying to get my energy back but other then that I can breath

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Congratulations on quitting! Keep up the good work.

  15. Andy Martin says:

    My 65 year old husband smoked 2 packs a day for 45 years. One day he decided to quit ” cold turkey”. A few days later he had the excepted confusion. About 2 weeks after that he had NO short time memory and a few months after that he had no short or long term memory. Why don’t people realize that nicotine alone is not the health problem to their body? It’s all the other stuff that’s in the cigarettes that cause the cancer and heart problems! I think that the
    increase in Alzheimer’s decrease has something the do with the increase in “cold turkey” cigarette quitting.

  16. Dre says:

    Today’s my first day without smoking and I feel like I’m not going to be able to do it :'(

    1. My Southern Health says:

      Congratulations on your decision to quit! If you need additional support and information, we have a wealth of it here: Wishing you our best as you kick the habit. You can do it!

  17. Tonay says:

    Hello, I quit smoking 2 days ago and its not hard all day long but at 730am (before work) and 1pm (lunch) is my designated smoke times and often 1 or 2 before bed. I am using these lozenges around those times and at 1pm is the hardest so I do use a vape but not for long just to get my anxiety down. It is hard but I have never smoked this much before in my life and over the last 6 months it has picked up I just had a baby in September ( I have a 12 year old too) and also found out my fiancé was cheating and then caught him again cheating, I began to drink a little and smoke a lot. I don’t drink unless its socially now and since I am trying to quit smoking I won’t drink at all until I am stronger. But it is hard I write down my thought and use many anti smoking apps to keep me motivated. I want to live for my kids. I don’t want to depend on cigs. I don’t like the way I smell my hair or finger tips. I don’t want my baby breathing that in. I found this thread really friendly and almost therapeutic especially since I am extremely craving right now but it has toned down a lot while writing this post. I try to say to myself daily I can do this. Will Smith said in a documentary “People that say they can and people that say they can’t are normally right!” I look at that quote and know that I can’t let this defeat me, I am limitless! Good luck and Congrats every one I will be checking this thread periodically to stay motivated!

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Tonay, I’m so sorry to hear about all the challenges in your life right now — I’m sure you’re tired and stressed. Congratulations for deciding to quit smoking. This is such an important step for your long-term health, and your child’s. You’re using great strategies. Stick with it! We wish you well.

  18. Shane says:

    I decided to quit after 30 years of smoking, a few days ago. I am now in the process of my own taper down method. I quit for about a year once, going cold Turkey, it sucked, cravings were bad when I did it that way. I foolishly started up again and have smoked a pack to a pack and a half of marlboro lights for the past 20 years. I realize i just smoke more and more over the years and I’m trapped, hopelessly addicted. I love to smoke and hate it at the same time. So now before i let it kill me, i must change!, and be free!! I think this time, by doing the method I’m trying, i will have a good chance of success and hopefully less bad effects. I’m hoping the tapering off of the highly addictive drug, nicotine, will create less of a shock to my system. It will also let me come to terms with ending something I do everyday of my life, and will soon be doing without. So I think the taper down will help me with the mental addiction aspect as well.
    I’m trying to taper off this way-
    Starting point- pack and a half every day = roughly 30 cigs daily
    I’m awake an average of 15 hours a day = 1 cig every 30 minutes
    1st day – smoke 1 cig every 35 minutes
    2nd day -smoke 1cig every 40 minutes
    3rd day – smoke 1 cig every 45 minutes, and so on.
    I’m hoping by increasing the time between cigerettes 5 minutes more every day, I will ween myself off of this horrible drug that wants to kill me and give me health problems. We will see, hopefully I can man up and stop all together as I plan. Good luck to all of you! And remember, If you’re feeling weak when quitting, just remember, It’s a horrible addiction and it kills you. The craving feeling you’re having is the evil of the drug trying to pull you back in, and you don’t need that in your life anymore. We can be free, and most of all, not let it kill us. Stay strong people!

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Shane, congratulations for making a plan to quit. We wish you luck! Keep in mind Dr. Tindle’s great advice in this post for making it easier to quit.

    2. Lora says:

      Hi Shane. First I will say. Just like me Congratulations for coming to the decision to quit smoking. I had been praying to God for about a year to be delivered and well Amen my prayers were answered I went pretty drastic after over 30 years of this addiction July 18th 2019 was the start day I got a bad taste I decided I’ll decrease my cigarettes it was difficult cause of withdrawal symptoms but I kept going with my Faith ..went from a liitle over a pack a day. .I started decreasing the number of cigarettes every 3 days. Its now August 17Th and I’m only 4 a day!! I’m on my way I pray on September 1 to be done..
      I pray Shane yours is successful too in decreasing as well to quit. It seems to be the best way. slow but working.. .. Lora

      Take Care Shane
      God Bless you,

  19. Nina says:

    Two weeks ago, I decided that today would be the day to stop smoking “cold turkey”. I still have a full pack of cigarettes that I do not intent to open. I have it by me, on the table, with a note that says: “let’s see who is stronger”. I also intent to keep the full pack because I want to remind to myself that it is my decision and my willpower that are in control, not the lack of cigarettes. So far, although I do have cravings, I am happy with my decision.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Nina, it’s great that you decided to quit! Congratulations on your success so far. If you feel you need them, you can always use the nicotine-replacement products mentioned in this post, or ask your doctor for the right prescription medication to help you with your quitting goal.

  20. cheryl says:

    I thought about tapering down but have read where it’s worse on the heart to have only 1 to 4 cigs a day. Hvnt had one today but it’s all I think about. I don’t want to die from smoking so I have to find the best way to quit

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your overall health, including your heart health. Good luck quitting! I hope the information in this post helps you succeed.

Leave a Reply