The “12 Steps” may be best known for their use in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. But in actuality the steps, principles and spirituality of the 12-step program have helped many, many people with other problems. Take smoking, for example. The versatility of the AA program means that it can help people with nicotine addiction. How? By providing a supportive group environment in which to apply the AA’s steps and principles for recovery.
The Decades-Long Success of 12-Step Support Groups
Mention support groups for drug and alcohol addiction and the first name that comes to mind is Alcoholics Anonymous or AA. Founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, the AA fellowship for alcoholics and recovering alcoholics has a 12-step organization. The purpose of these 12 steps is to enable sobriety among members and encourage fellow alcoholics to stop drinking.
Why have the 12 steps and AA been successful for more than eight decades? A major reason is that the organization highlights and promotes group members’ social interaction. Group members offer each other both emotional support and easy-to-use tips about ways to refrain from drinking alcohol. A comprehensive analysis by Stanford University researchers concluded that AA “is the most effective path to abstinence.”
Another reason is the variety of ways that 12-step recovery has aided other spin-off groups tackling different behavioral challenges. It is no surprise that Nicotine Anonymous 12-step groups and Smokers Anonymous meetings gained momentum. Using the established foundation of the 12 Steps, these groups could help their members stop smoking by appealing to recovery principles with a track record of success.
Why Is Smoking Hard to Quit?
Ask any long-term smoker how tough it is to quit. They’ll offer a litany of reasons. Without question, the number one reason that smoking is hard to quit is that nicotine is highly addictive. A 1988 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, indicated that nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 58.1 million people age 12 and older were current smokers. The majority of those (45.9 million people) smoked cigarettes daily.
The Cravings, Withdrawal and High Relapse Rates
When quitting smoking, the smoker must get used to the idea of no longer having nicotine around. Someone who smokes experiences the release of brain chemicals (dopamine) that makes them feel good. These stimulants facilitate the recurrence of smoking so that the individual again has that feel-good experience.
Over time, the brain’s structure begins to change as the brain becomes accustomed to that regular nicotine hit. It becomes harder to stop smoking because irritability and withdrawal set in. Since smoking cigarettes rapidly delivers nicotine to the brain, those who stop smoking, even for a brief time, go through nicotine cravings. Part of the withdrawal process includes feelings of anxiety, difficulty with concentration, sleeplessness and generally feeling uncomfortable. For many, the only way to stop withdrawal and feel good again is to return to smoking.
Smoking is also one of the most commonly relapsed addictions. It is not uncommon for smokers to quit multiple times only to experience a new relapse. In this sense, smoking addiction is like many other addictions, in which relapse is a part of the treatment and recovery process.
The Physical, Mental and Social Components of Nicotine Addiction
The American Lung Association says that nicotine addiction involves physical, mental, and social components. Describing these components as a “three-link chain,” the ALA says that success in beating nicotine addiction means a dedication to addressing all three.
The physical aspects of nicotine addiction are one element. There’s also the ritual of lighting up at certain times of the day. Plus, feeling bound to the act of smoking accounts for the mental component of smoking. Likewise, people often associate smoking with being social, breaking the ice, being part of the group and fitting in. It’s hard for long-time smokers to give up this powerful social activity they’ve enjoyed for so long. In order to quit, though, they need to find other ways to enjoy life without smoking.
How Might the AA Structure Help Smokers?
Regular meeting attendance and dedication to working the 12 Steps are an integral part of the AA structure. There are some minor word modifications in the Nicotine Anonymous 12 Steps, replacing alcohol for nicotine, for example. Otherwise, the AA structure is nearly a seamless fit with the group’s goals. Why? The modified 12 Steps of AA, its guiding principles and some of its key tenets also work for a nicotine addiction.
Taking It One Day at a Time
In AA, members often say to quit “one day at a time.” Rather than focusing on quitting forever, just take it one day at a time. Quitting today is much easier to get through. It is a goal that seems doable, even for long-time alcohol or drug users. Focus on working the Nicotine Anonymous 12 Steps. That way, smokers who want to quit can remind themselves and others that they can get through today without lighting up.
Meeting in Groups
Group meetings encourage members to share their experiences, learn about nicotine recovery, encourage one another and discuss what works. Recovery is a process that is best approached with a focus on the solution rather than the problem.
Believing in a Higher Power
Members of NicA are encouraged to nurture their belief in a Higher Power. NicA, like AA and other 12-step groups, is not a religious organization. Being open to the existence of a Higher Power, in whatever form that takes, is a principle of spirituality. This belief in a Higher Power has helped countless people in their struggles with addiction. How it works within NicA, according to the fellowship, is through personal discovery. For some, the group itself is a form of Higher Power.
Keep Showing Up
Another familiar slogan in NicA is like the one so often heard in AA meetings: “Keep showing up.” Working the 12 step-program takes time, effort and determination. Sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes you get discouraged. New and existing members are encouraged to listen. Later, they may want to share their stories.
Besides the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, other similarities between the AA structure and that of NicA include:
- Getting a sponsor
- Reading the literature
- Practicing the principles in daily life
- Being of service to others
What Are Some Common AA-Smokers Groups?
Nicotine Anonymous (NicA) is the official current name of the fellowship of individuals dedicated to helping members live nicotine-free. Originally, the group name was “Smokers Anonymous.” The organization is open to anyone who wants to stop using nicotine or tobacco in any form. The format involves the Nicotine Anonymous 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, adapted from the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA. Besides meetings, Nicotine Anonymous offers a quarterly newsletter. It’s filled with tips to counter cravings, suggestions from members about what works for them and discussions about nicotine recovery.
NicA offers face-to-face meetings, video conference meetings through Zoom and phone meetings. Two more innovative groups are the email chain and snail mail groups, for group interaction and one-on-one interaction, respectively.
There is also the Voices of Nicotine Recovery (VONR). This consists of a group of nicotine addicts (primarily smokers) who meet regularly to help support each other and learn more about nicotine recovery. According to the VONR website, it isn’t necessary to have stopped using nicotine to join the group. This is an Internet meeting that’s part of the NicA fellowship.
Another helpful group for smokers who want to quit is Nicotine Quit Buddies. This group is now an email-only list group.
How to Seek Help from a Nicotine Support Group
The first step is to do an Internet search for Nicotine support groups or Nicotine Anonymous meetings “near me.” A nicotine support group is not that difficult to find—especially since many millions of Americans smoke and about 70 percent of them want to quit, according to research.
Another valuable resource for those who want to quit smoking is smokefree.gov. Any would-be or recovering smoker can go to the website for many free tips and tools.
Individuals may need help beyond participation in a nicotine anonymous 12-steps group. Professional counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and other therapies may be appropriate. Be proactive. Seek help today.