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The question

I've been a very casual smoker for about 10 years - but I only do it around my friends who smoke. This ends up being about 3 cigarettes a week. There's something about my friends smoking that triggers a mental response for me to join them.

What mental strategies can I use to prevent this? I'd really like to stop.

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The answer

Stopping – or even cutting down – the amount you smoke can have a tremendous positive impact on your health. However, cutting down on the amount that you smoke can be challenging and frustrating, and is easier said than done. On a very positive note, the amount that you smoke is relatively little (although I would like to underscore this still can have a significant negative impact on health). The other positive thing is that you have one set of very clear triggers/cues for your smoking – friends who smoke – which increases the likelihood that you will be able to stop smoking reasonably quickly, if you put effort into adhering to effective strategies.

Your smoking pattern is one where there is a strong psychological addiction, but little if any physiological addiction. The best way to target the psychological addiction is to break the behavioural patterns that are associated with your smoking.

For the first few weeks, don't change how much you smoke, change when you smoke. This is an effective strategy that may sound counter-intuitive, but works!

You say you are smoking 3 cigarettes a week. So, schedule having one cigarette every other day. There are a few rules for making this effective:

Only smoke at scheduled times.

You do not have to smoke at a scheduled time if you do not have the urge to smoke.

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You cannot "save up" scheduled smoking times that you missed.

The predetermined, scheduled smoke time cannot be around other people. The rationale is that you are breaking the behavioural link between a stimulus cue (friends who smoke) and your behavioural response (smoking).

Also, for this first few weeks while you are implementing these strategies, make a concerted effort to not be around these friends at all so you avoid the temptation to smoke.

For the subsequent few weeks, your goal is to expose yourself to the stimulus cues (friends who smoke) and actively not give in to the behavioural response (smoking).

There are a few ways you can approach this. You could have your predetermined scheduled cigarette immediately before seeing your friends. You could drink/eat something that is incompatible with smoking (e.g., many people find that if they sip on a beverage such as milk or apple juice they will not want to simultaneously smoke).

Once you have been able to get through these steps successfully, start to gradually reduce the number of cigarettes you are having (start with 4 maximum one week, 3 the following week, 2 the following, etc.) until you have completely eliminated smoking.

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Write down the reasons you want to quit smoking completely and place these reasons somewhere you can view them daily - your fridge or bathroom mirror. Actually having the reasons front and centre in your mind can have a powerful impact.

Be patient. Recognize that it is hard to stop smoking (even if you are smoking a small quantity), particularly if you have smoked for years or even decades. Know that you may have some setbacks, but that you can do it.

Finally, reward yourself for cutting down or stopping smoking. One way is to calculate the amount of money you are saving by smoking less, and use this money toward a purchase to treat yourself. You may also reward yourself if you meet a target goal you have set to cut down/quit smoking.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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