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THE RELUCTANT NOVICE : QUITTING SMOKING : Lights Out : When the dirty looks get to be too much, it's time for help from Nicotine Anonymous.

November 01, 1990

Acombination of factors has brought you here. The most obvious is that you are finally admitting defeat to a piece of white paper wrapped around brown leaves: You are a slave to cigarettes.

Oh, you've read the literature and listened without effect to family and friends talk about your detestable habit. You've even seen the horror in the eyes of strangers in restaurants, who look as if you'd changed an infant's diaper at the table. Through it all, you have puffed away.

Now you are reaching the end of the line. You are tired of being a social leper. You want to quit. But how?

One friend stopped cold turkey and started up again when she ran out of plates to throw. Another tried hypnosis and cried for a week about a childhood spanking. Another became addicted to nicotine gum. There must be another way.

Then you are told about a group called Nicotine Anonymous, based on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The goal of the support group, which meets at various times and sites throughout Ventura County, is to help smokers quit the habit one day at a time.

At first, you are hesitant. Will people sit around talking about how they lost their jobs and families to smoking? And if people at the meetings don't smoke at the break, what do they do? Drink?

You walk into a meeting room of a local hospital and think you are in the wrong place. Only three other people are there. Bill, clean-cut and in his mid-30s, reads the steps of the program in a voice better suited to a crowded auditorium. Lisa and Erin, two women in their late 20s, listen intently.

You catch occasional phrases:

"Admitted we were powerless over nicotine."

"Came to believe we could be restored to sanity."

You sadly remember the time you had the flu and still tried to smoke.

Bill asks if there are any chip takers. You look at the back table, thinking you must have missed the Doritos when you came in.

Instead, he reaches into a bag and hands Lisa a plastic chip with "30 days" written on one side. On the other is a picture of a cigarette inside a circle with a line through it.

Lisa swirls the chip round and round on her index finger and smiles. She taps her foot up and down to a silent beat. She folds her arms and rocks back and forth. You begin to panic.

Then she tells the group how it was. She smoked for 19 years. She always had to have her cigarettes and didn't care what anyone thought. She knew it smelled bad and gave her a wheezing cough. Then she woke up one morning with the desire to be free of cigarettes. It was the first time she'd ever thought about quitting. She came to a meeting, asked for help and has been a nonsmoker for exactly 30 days. It has been hard and emotionally trying, she says, but worth it.

Bill and Erin both clap and so you join in. You don't want to stand out. Bill then turns to you and asks you how long you have been free of cigarettes. You look at your watch. If they search your purse, you're busted.

Erin then tells you that the only requirement for membership in Nicotine Anonymous is a desire to stop smoking. She says it took a lot for her to finally stop six months before. First, she watched her mother die of emphysema and cancer. She tells you to keep coming back.

For the first time since you walked in, you relax. And as you look at the pack of cigarettes in your purse, you think you just might come back.

* THE PREMISE

There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character-building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547. If we use your idea, we'll send you a present. This week's Reluctant Novice is staff writer Aurora Mackey Armstrong.

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