Quitting Smoking Is Easy When It’s Easy
Rick Paulas takes a look at Allen Carr's The Easy Way to Stop Smoking and wonders if the author might actually be right
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“This is it, if you really want to do it.”
—Inscription in my borrowed copy of The Easy Way to Stop Smoking
Allen Carr was a terrible writer. While there’s no scientific proof that spending 25 years of one’s life as an accountant has a direct effect on that person’s ability to artistically massage the written word, that Carr spent his developmental years mixing numbers and doing taxes makes all sorts of sense when reading his work. It’s derivative, repetitive, dry, and, the greatest sin of all, terribly boring. And yet, he’s one of the most important and influential writers of our time.
If the top left-hand corner of his most popular work’s latest edition is to be believed, it has sold “over 10,000,000” copies worldwide since its release in 1985. Those kind of sales put it in the same ballpark as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Cat in the Hat, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Joy of Sex. Not quite Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird or, ugh, The Da Vinci Code numbers, but very respectable. His influence, however, goes well beyond bestsellers list. With his book, he performed one of the greatest magic tricks of the 20th century: He got people to quit smoking.
As noted in his official bio/sales-pitch, Carr was born in 1934, lit up his first cigarette at 18, and quickly developed a 100-smokes-a-day habit that lasted for 33 years, much spent trying to wean himself from the addiction. “I was a serial quitter,” he writes. “I once lasted six months of sheer hell before I caved in and lit one up.” All that came to an end one day in 1983, when Carr had his self-described “Eureka! moment,” a simple change in thought-process that kept him from picking up another cigarette. (The three- to five-packs-a-day habit did eventually catch up with him; he died of lung cancer in 2006.) His The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, then, is essentially a 220-page attempt to translate that momentary bit of mental gymnastics to the public.
(Carr’s self-help expertise doesn’t end there—he’s also published subsequent books on how to quit alcohol, lose weight, stop your child from smoking, how women specifically can keep themselves from the nasty habit and, oddly, how to enjoy flying—but the sales figures and acclaim associated with those satellites of his empire don’t touch his original foray into the field.)
While statistics on smoking cessation methods are notoriously hard to trust—the American Cancer Society asks in their intro to the Guide to Quitting Smoking, “Does success mean that a person is not smoking at the end of the program? After three months? Six months? One year? Does smoking fewer cigarettes (rather than stopping completely) count as success?”—The Easy Way‘s website quotes a study that gives their method a 53.3-percent success rate, well above nicotine gums, patches, acupuncture, and the antidepressant Wellbutrin. Celebrity testimonials for the book, seminars, and its various multi-platform releases (there’s even a Nintendo DS version, presumably the least exciting video game of all time) range from Ellen DeGeneres to Ashton Kutcher to David Blaine to Sirs Anthony Hopkins and Richard Branson. But what’s most telling of the book’s impact: the whispering mentions you hear in office courtyards before lunch or huddles in the cold between music acts. If you’ve smoked more than a few awkward inhales of teenage interest, you’ve heard of The Book.
“I got the book in 2005, and it sat on my coffee table for a year,” says Paul F. Tompkins, a veteran comedian of over 26 years who’s smoked for nearly as long. “I did not touch it. It just sat there.” Such is the rumored power of The Book: Smokers are scared to read it because it actually works.
WHAT’S MOST SHOCKING ABOUT the book’s contents is perhaps what’s missing. There are no stats about lung cancer, heart attacks, or strokes. No scare tactics like what the social pranksters at TheTruth.com dabble in. No veiled threats to the state of your sex life by focusing on bad breath and stained teeth. “The health scares make it harder [to stop],” writes Carr. And are obviously ineffective. Walk down any European city street, and you can see the futility of frightening people into giving up smoking. Sidewalks and trashcans are littered with crumpled packs, the brand of the tobacco company mostly obscured by giant black-and-white warnings or grotesque images of rotten lungs or gangrenous feet. (It’s easy to imagine a smoker heading into a corner market and asking for “a pack of the diseased hearts.”) “We smoke when we are nervous,” writes Carr. “Tell smokers that cigarettes are killing them, and the first thing they will do is light one.”
Instead, Carr removes the sense that quitting is a struggle by peppering passages with bright bold lettering, bits of humor (example: the chapter entitled “The Advantages of Being a Smoker” is just a blank page), and a grade-schooler’s liberal use of the exclamation point. He makes the world of non-smoking one that’s covered in tulips, presided over by butterflies, and smelling of your grandma’s favorite Sunday dinner. It’s not surprising, then, when Carr starts trash-talking popular quitting methods like pure willpower or “going cold turkey,” as both inherently come with a sense of struggle built in. (Also not surprising: Carr doesn’t care much for replacement nicotine-delivering systems or gradual step-down methods, although the skeptic may see that as simply a man dissing his competitors.) Which all points toward the basic concept behind the book and Carr’s own moment of inspiration, one that’s spelled out right there in the title: Quitting is easy.
Quitting is easy. Quitting is easy. Quitting is easy.
“It’s very repetitive,” says Tompkins. “And I was aware of that while reading. Like, is this some hypnosis thing?”
Carr supposedly discovered his brain-tweak following an appointment with his hypnotherapist, and many of the basic tenets of hypnosis are evident in the book. The chapters are generally three-to-four pages, subliminally prodding readers to plow through it quickly; putting down the book for the night means getting over that “oh, I guess I don’t have time for one more chapter” hump that popular novelists like Dan Brown and John Grisham have mastered. It’s something you live with for a short period of time, almost as long as an actual appointment with a hypnotist, rather than the months it may take to get through a Pynchon novel. Repetition also plays a key role in the prose, every few chapters containing thesis statements that summarize Carr’s belief that quitting is easy and the smoker’s life is about to be fantastic once they put an “ex-” in front of their designation. “It doesn’t taste good, you don’t need it, the cravings are not bad like you’re to believe,” lists Tompkins. “It’s just a demystification of it all.”
ADDICTION TO CIGARETTES IS one of the toughest to get over because so much of the hook comes from within. Unlike hard drugs (where the high is legit and the body chemistry is changed) or alcohol (where studies seem to pop up every week that one glass of whatever is actually healthy, thrown on top of the pre-existing societal acceptance and glamorization, making it easy to ignore it as a problem), there’s no such excuse for smoking. There may be a small buzz from nicotine the first few times your brain gets adjusted to accepting the drug, but if you’re smoking to the point where you’re thinking about needing to quit, that buzz has long past. Even the “cool” aspect of smoking’s been diminished as bans have funneled smokers into zoo-like partitions from society, making the act look anything but. (Truth: there’s nothing sadder than the smoking area inside of an airport.) So, instead, smokers tell themselves lies never spoken or considered, half-consciously partaking in the same willful ignorance that allows bullshit-detectors to be turned off while watching The Avengers or porn. If addressed by name, smokers have to confront what they’re doing, and then confront if that’s the person they want to be. Forced self-examination by the revelation of truth. That’s what the book does.
“A big part of why I kept smoking for as long as I did was that, well, this is part of my identity,” says Tompkins. “I wanted to look cool. I wasn’t putting it into clear thoughts like that; it was just a feeling I had. It wasn’t until I read the book that I had to admit that to myself. And then the idea of picking it up again just seemed so ludicrous.”
“My initial reaction was this is simplistic and isn’t anything I don’t know,” says musician and film composer Michael Penn, a pack-a-day smoker for 20 years who first turned Tompkins onto the book. “But I began to understand that it was simple, not simplistic. Even though I was familiar with the concepts, they were stated in a succinct and effective way.”
That’s not to say the book works on everyone: “I resented being told I was going to feel a certain way,” says my friend Janine Ellis. “He seemed really obnoxious and his tone was condescending.” Which isn’t surprising, seeing that for as much as Carr forces smokers to look inward at their own demons, there’s plenty of pages demonizing and pointing somewhat-mocking fingers at those who still smoke.
“To this day when I see somebody smoking, my immediate thought is that poor slob,” says Barb Noble, a one-time pack-a-day smoker who hasn’t touched one in 20 years. In 1989, Barb—along with her husband, Bob—took a personal seminar in Carr’s own home in Walden, England. (A little journalistic disclosure: Barb and Bob are my roommate’s parents.) “He had about five or six Barcaloungers,” recalls Barb, “and packs of cigarettes and lighters, because he wanted us to chain-smoke during the entire session. That room was so thick with smoke you could hardly breathe.” (This “smoke yourself out” aspect is translated into the book with his request to smoke the entire time you’re reading, a move that personally made me force-inhale my final four cigarettes even though I really didn’t want them.) But what’s most interesting about the Nobles’ account is the question Carr started the seminar with. “He asked, ‘Why did you come here today?’” says Noble. “And I gave him the reason because I had two small children. And he said, ‘It’s not going to work for you. It won’t work if you’re doing it for someone else.’”
WHEN I PICKED IT up two years ago, it wasn’t with pangs of fear as much as brash confrontationalism toward my ex-smoker friends who recommended it as their method of quitting, a backwards way of showcasing my own mental strength. “A bunch of words can’t change my brain,” was me at my most annoyingly punk-skeptic. The whole time I was reading—a task that takes about a week due to the aforementioned near-sixth-grade writing level—I had one eye in a “I see what you’re trying to do here” squint, the same one that occurs in the first minute of a magic act when you’re still trying to figure out the trick. Meaning: I read the book trying to get it not to work. And yet it still did.
Throughout grade school and high school, I never touched a cigarette. It wasn’t so much a built-in fear as much as I simply never had the opportunity; my morals were easily compromised if peer pressure was introduced. I just lucked out that no one tried pulling that on me. So it wasn’t shocking that when a college friend—from the Honors Floor, no less—offered me a smoke, I immediately accepted. From there, I was on a very small and specific habit (one-to-two cigarettes a day, never when the sun was out, more if there was alcohol involved) for the next decade. By any smoker’s standards it wasn’t much, but a decade is still a long time—a lot of cigarettes, when you add them up. While I wasn’t worried about long-term health defects and didn’t have visual evidence like all shades of green phlegm staring at me from the bathroom sink, I certainly had the self-loathing that comes with knowingly doing something wrong.
For the past two-plus years now, since freeing myself from “the slavery of the weed” as Carr puts it, I’ve remained smoke-free. Which is troubling. Because, really, it shouldn’t work this effectively. Quitting smoking is hard stuff, to the point where a week of reading shouldn’t just do the trick. With millions of dollars being spent annually on nicotine lozenges, patches, hypnosis, the new nearly-criminally ridiculous-looking e-cigarettes, why does a book that retails for $9.49 on Amazon work?
Well, it seems there’s one key to the book’s magic trick not unraveling: A willingness by the reader to give themselves over to Carr’s sleepy and hypnotic prose, to become the kid watching the card trick, to consent to AA’s first step of admitting the problem before it can be solved.
“If you really are ready to admit to things about smoking that the book makes you admit,” says Tompkins, “it works.” And if it doesn’t, if you’re one of the 46.7 percent that Carr’s book fails, then maybe you’ll still come away from it changed, even slightly.
“I started smoking cigars,” says Bob Noble with a laugh. “The guy never said anything about cigars.”
Rick Paulas has written many things, some of them serious, some of them not, for The Awl, Vice, Wired, and McSweeney’s. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.