Sayonara Cigarettes: Kicking the habit in the month of Ramadan

Since the month of Ramadan (MOR) forces smokers to abstain from cigarettes for 17-hour stretches, this seems like the perfect opportunity for those of us who are nicotine-ly inclined to drop the habit once and for all. Here are some tips for those of us who have tried and tried but never fully succeeded or for those of us who have spent 12 years scolding our fathers at iftaar time.

Smoking kills. Thanks to the thousands of Public Service Announcements and warning labels on cigarette packages, we’ve all been informed that smoking increases risk for heart disease, cancer, and early death. Yet still nicotine addictions persist. Now it may seem appropriate to blame this trend on John Travolta and his oh-so-smokin’ performance in Grease, but truthfully there is another underlying issue at play. If threatening smokers with death and disease won’t do it – what motivates smokers to drop kick the habit? Have no fear, psychologists are here! Self Determination Theory (SDT) breaks down motivation in the context of nicotine addiction and facilitates smokers’ journeys towards life without cigarettes.


We hear people throw around the term “intrinsic motivation” all the time in the work place, but the theories of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation are actually characterized and detailed in Self Determination Theory. SDT is a psychological theory of motivation, which argues that individuals have three basic needs that must be satisfied to facilitate growth.

  • First, individuals have a need for competence – to feel that they control outcomes with their own skill set.
  • Second, individuals have a need for relatedness – after all, Homo sapiens are very social beings.
  • Finally individuals have a need for autonomy – to feel as if they are the causal agent in their own life and they make their own choices.

These three basic needs are important to keep in mind as we start uncovering ways in which we can help ourselves or our family members quit smoking. University of Rochester psychologist, Christopher Niemiec, has performed a number of studies specifically testing how effective different forms of motivation and social support are in helping individuals quit smoking. We won’t be going into the details of the methods and statistical results of these studies but if you’re into that sort of stuff (I know I am) then feel free to read the articles here. Using what was learned in these studies, we can come up with a few practical ways to facilitate nicotine rehabilitation this MOR.

Practical Applications

1. Promote Autonomy

At the end of the day the only person who can put down the lighter is the one doing the smoking. Studies show that using guilt and coercion is counter intuitive and lends itself to high levels of attrition. So no more “I want you to be alive to play with your grandchildren” tactics – when the time is right and you want to quit smoking, you won’t need anyone breathing down your neck with threats regarding your mortality.

It is important to note that in Niemiec’s study, participants were asked what their intentions were regarding smoking (quitting, reducing daily number of cigarettes, maintaining the habit, etc.) and therapists only advised patients based on whichever route they chose. One of the biggest things you can do here is to elicit and acknowledge the smoker’s perspective. This is all about supporting the individual and reassuring them that no one here is bullying them into a decision because, truthfully, no one should be bullying anyone into a decision.

2. Unconditional Positive Regard

Unconditional positive regard is the basis of a lot of current therapy techniques. Therapists reassure patients that regardless of their actions or decisions, they will always be regarded in a positive light. This is especially difficult to understand in some Eastern cultures where actions speak louder than words and have clear consequences. But make sure to give this a try! Your family member or friend probably already knows that you think they are wonderful but being vocal about it and acting in an unconditionally supportive manner can help motivate smokers to feel comfortable making the big decision to go cold turkey. Stop nagging and start bragging (about your friend)!

3. Provide Clear Options for Change

It’s easy to say you’ll quit or to push someone to throw out all of their cigarettes but, after those first couple of euphoric minutes, rehabilitation can be difficult and frustrating. Make sure to go into the process prepared with a list of tools to help you make it through the journey. Think of heathy alternatives to smoking (i.e. eating sunflower seeds) and write down a list of positive thoughts or encouragements to help you push through the tough bouts of temptation. Also keep in mind that smoking has an enormous social aspect so quitting means not only constant itching, but also missing out on moments with friends. Find the non-smokers in your friend group and start cultivating some serious relationships!

Now as attractive as it may be to just flush the cigarettes and be done smoking overnight; some of us may need to slowly wean ourselves off of smoking. Setting weekly goals for limiting your cigarette intake is also a productive and manageable way to take a step in the right direction.

4. Aim for Internalization

This is the end all, be all with regards to motivation. When an individual truly believes that something is true or important to them, they tend to be intrinsically motivated to act in a way that is congruent with their beliefs. In the context of smoking, this entails the smoker not only knowing the facts (smoking kills) but also personally giving importance to living a healthy lifestyle. Knowing that society values a certain behavior and actually valuing that behavior yourself are two very different things. Until a smoker comes to the realization that they value quitting smoking outside of the context of societal pressure, it is difficult to drop the habit in the long term.

If you smoke, think actively regarding how you feel about your smoking habit and how it defines you. Realizing that you don’t approve of your own actions doesn’t mean you need to quit today – but just make yourself aware of how smoking is affecting you on a daily basis. Being cognizant of the fact that each day you are actively choosing to smoke helps to put the situation into perspective.


Self Determination Theory is such an interesting, easy, and straightforward study of human behavior and motivation and, truthfully, if I could I would have inundated this article in psychological terminology. Feel free to spend a quick minute looking into SDT for yourself – google is your friend. When it comes down to it, SDT is all about empowering oneself to change. Transforming the conversation from nagging smokers into supporting them so they may feel motivated to quit by themselves sheds a positive light on a difficult subject and makes the family iftaars much more peaceful!



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