‘Are you still off them?’: Former smokers share their stories of kicking the butts

Pandemic saw people’s smoking habits change for the better or worse

Although smoking cigarettes has become much less common now than it was a few decades ago, about one in five adults in Ireland smoke daily and many more describe themselves as occasional or social smokers.

Many people changed their smoking habits during the Covid-19 pandemic with some social smokers smoking less but others restarting or smoking more due to extra stress.

Recent research from some 5,600 heart-attack patients found that male smokers had a heart attack on average at the age of 56, compared to 65 for non-smoking males. Smoking increases the risk of a heart attack for women by 16 years with the average age of female smokers, who have a heart attack, to be 60 compared to 76 for non smoking females.

My cardiologist said to me 'you need to kill the cigarettes or they will kill you'

Martina Blake, the HSE National Lead Tobacco Free Ireland programme says that people can prepare to quit by keeping a smoking diary. "This helps you understand your smoking patterns and triggers so that you can think of realistic ways to deal with or avoid situations that might trigger the need to smoke," she says.


The HSE has stop smoking clinics throughout the country where stop smoking advisors offer practical non-judgemental support to anyone keen to give up smoking cigarettes.

The advisors also offer free nicotine dependence assessments to help people decide if they need nicotine replacement patches, gum, mouth sprays or inhalers to help wean themselves off nicotine and reduce withdrawal symptoms. hse.ie/quit-smoking or the Quit Facebook Page or @HSE QuitTeam on Twitter.

‘I feel very good now’

Micheál Hurley (65) started smoking cigarettes with a few friends during their Leaving Certificate year and over time he began to smoke between 30-40 cigarettes a day. Working long hours in his shop outside Clonakilty, Co Cork, smoking became a habit that he found impossible to break.

A heart attack in 2015 – after which he was air lifted by helicopter to University Hospital Cork – prompted him to give up cigarettes for a year but he went back on them. “My cardiologist said to me “you need to kill the cigarettes or they will kill you” but still I went back on them,” he explains.

In early 2021, he noticed something in the newspaper about the HSE Quit programme and contacted his local stop smoking advisor who encouraged him to give it a go. So, in March 2021, he smoked his last cigarette and embarked on a smoking cessation programme using the prescription tablets, Champix.

“I never got a craving for a cigarette since. I was on the tablets for 8-12 weeks and the advisor was in contact with me every week at the start, then every two weeks, every month and later every three months/six months until I reached a year,” he explains.

Micheál says that his wife, Mary couldn’t believe he gave them up so easily in the end. He got a dreadful cough for about two months after he quit cigarettes but then it disappeared. “I feel very good now. My energy levels are better. My blood pressure and my heart rate are perfect,” he says, adding that one of his friends quit a year after him and is still off the cigarettes too.

“My advice to anyone considering quitting is that it is worth it all. You might have a couple of bad weeks but you go past it. But, don’t ask anyone who is quitting ‘are you still off them’. If they are, they’ll tell you all about it.”

The Four Ds

Jackie Wilkinson (57) was three months off cigarettes when we spoke. "It's the first time I've ever gone this far. I'm absolutely delighted with myself," she says.

Numerous health problems – including recent diagnoses of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) – prompted Jackie to quit smoking.

“I wogged [a combination of walking and jogging] the Dublin City Marathon in 2015 and I used to train for 8-10 miles a day but then in the last few years, I was barely able to do one or two miles. I couldn’t walk up the stairs or up a hill without puffing and panting and I had a horrendous cough. People would hear me before they saw me,” she explains.

In April 2021, Jackie had a heart stent put in which improved her health and it was during her cardio-rehab that a nurse referred her to the quit programme. “The first week of quitting was the easiest for me. The second week wasn’t too bad but the third week was torturous.

“I found the advisor very good. He had been a smoker himself so he understood. I had been smoking since I was nine. I used to nick cigarettes from my mother who was a heavy smoker.”

She tells me that her mother gave up smoking when she was 57 and only realises as we speak the coincidence that she has now given up cigarettes at the same age. “My mother became so against smoking when she gave them up,” she remembers.

Discussing the tactics she uses to stop herself reaching for a cigarette, Jackie says that she has found the Four Ds – drink water, delay (wait) three to five minutes for the craving to pass, distract yourself and take deep breaths – very helpful. “I drink water as a distraction. I chew gum if I have a bad craving. I distract myself with housework or gardening and I got rid of all the ashtrays and cigarettes that I used to have stashed everywhere,” she says. She also goes to the gym three times a week and walks her dog every day.

“I had lost some weight before I gave them up so I didn’t want to put on weight again. I met the smoking cessation advisor once a week for six weeks and he phones me every now and again and I can contact him if I need to. I had tried to quite at least 10 times but this time it is working. My advice is to never give up trying,” she explains.

Although none of her children smoke, her partner still smokes. “He doesn’t smoke in front of me. He smokes in another room, opens the window and empties the ashtray afterwards. The smell of cigarettes turns my stomach now. Now I’m saying to him – look what you’re spending each week and I used to spend €80-€90 a week on cigarettes.”