How I Quit Cigarettes in Prison, After Smoking for 40 Years

February 23, 2023

I’m coming up on the three-year anniversary of the day I stopped smoking cigarettes. It’s strange to think that I no longer smoke. I first puffed on a cigarette when I was 8, and by the time I was a teenager I was smoking a pack a day. Giving it up didn’t seriously cross my mind for the next 40 years.

Smoking guided many of life’s big decisions. Not because I had no power over nicotine, but because through the decades society often sent those of us who smoked one way and those who didn’t another—and I had no objection to being swept in the direction that made sense to me anyway.

After high school, my friends and I planned to enlist in the military. Many of them did, and I had every intention of joining up until the moment I was told that I couldn’t smoke during basic training, which would be a couple of months. Forget that, said I, and decided the new life plan was attending the local community college. Around this time I picked up a deep-bowled corncob pipe at a yard sale; the new life plan was also to be mature and sophisticated. 

Though cigarettes were always my mainstay, the pipe lasted through college and into the construction jobs where I spent my 20s, mostly working on interstate highways. It was a great hand-warmer, useful on job sites when you didn’t have enough time between tasks for a cigarette—the deep bowl could be filled halfway and kept in a coat pocket, then relit when you had a few seconds for a puff or two.

Restaurants began to ask whether it’d be the smoking or non-smoking section. I did not understand the question.

I got engaged, but not married. The fiancée didn’t want to marry a smoker, and though I’d made a passing attempt or two at Nicorette, or some sort of nicotine replacement therapy I barely remember, at that time in my life I was never going to quit. Everyone in my family smoked, and none of us had ever questioned whether we should. I resented anti-smoking culture and still do. But the fact that I wouldn’t give up smoking for her convinced her I was more committed to cigarettes than to the relationship, and she wasn’t wrong.

In the early 1980s, restaurants began to ask whether it’d be a table in the smoking or non-smoking section. I did not understand the question. Who lives in a world where people are choosing the non-smoking section, and what makes it different? If one person’s smoking, everyone in the room is in the smoking section. And once I was sent to prison, everyone was always in the smoking section. 

Then came COVID. For most of March 2020, I could only get out of bed for bathroom breaks, of which there were very few thanks to fever sweats. Breathing was difficult, which meant smoking was difficult.

I considered the unfinished cig in the context of my finances. Being poor is expensive; being in a forced labor camp is very expensive.

When I lit a cigarette and took a tentative drag to see whether I was better yet, I felt a distinct sensation like there were four pinpricks at the back of my throat. I took a few more drags—to make sure I wasn’t better yet—then dropped the cig in the toilet and went back to bed.

The next day I tried again, lighting up a cigarette to watch the news. Cue the pinpricks, stubbing out the cig in an ashtray.

I then considered the unfinished cig in the context of my finances. Being poor is expensive; being in a forced labor camp is very expensive. Side hustles had allowed me to smoke and sometimes eat, and so two weeks of pandemic bedrest had taken a toll. The most prudent of my neighbors had six months in savings for just such emergencies, but I couldn’t remember the last time I was more than a week ahead; years ago, maybe.

Due to the vagaries of institutional living, tobacco prices fluctuated almost daily. A given week would see $40 dollars go toward an ounce of good loose leaf that usually lasted til the next resupply, but in prison (and elsewhere, one would assume) an ounce doesn’t mean 28.35 grams so much as whatever amount ends up in the bag.

I rolled a cigarette and took pinprick puffs—still sick, just making sure—while I weighed the situation. I hadn’t eaten in like 10 days. All roads seemed to lead to the same place. I rolled one last, generous cigarette that I saved to smoke later that night before bed, and set about selling the rest of my last ounce for food items. I could no longer afford to smoke, but at least I could eat while waiting for the craving to pass.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it felt like divine intervention, but a few factors had aligned.

The cravings never came. I don’t mean to dismiss anyone whose “how I quit cigarettes” story involves a series of attempts that didn’t take. But in my case I simply decided to stop smoking, and I stopped, and that was it.

I’ve seen people drink water every time a craving hits, or do push-ups. The occasional vape makes its way into prison, but not because we hear anything about tobacco harm reduction. People who try to quit through much more effort than me—which is most of them—don’t have much support here.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it felt like divine intervention allowed me to go cold-turkey, but a few factors had aligned. It of course helped that quitting was my idea. In a more tangible sense, being financially motivated worked out—not buying cigarettes meant I could incentivize not smoking with rewards, such as food.

Positive reinforcements tend to facilitate the behavioral changes our government attributes to punitive ones. After a week without cigarettes I splurged on the commissary ready-to-eat meatballs in spaghetti sauce, and wondered what I could get after a month. A new radio, it turned out. And of course the body still benefits from quitting no matter one’s age, but that was never my motivation.

I’d been meditating on and off for years even before prison, and that helped. So did writing—I never smoked while writing, but I’d always taken smoke breaks from writing. If stuck on a particular line or idea, a trigger in my brain would still direct me to smoke on it, but what this really meant was: Observe the idea, expand on it and see what comes of it. Purpose is a useful way to fill a void where addictive behaviors used to be.

The thought of cigarettes sometimes floats across my mind in time of stress or when someone nearby lights one within an especially rich aroma. But I’m content to enjoy it from afar. Cigarettes still shape the course of my life and relationships with the people around me: For four decades I smoked whenever and wherever I wanted without regard for the comfort of others, which turned me into a non-smoker who doesn’t mind when others do the same.



Photograph via Utah Office of the Attorney General

Jimmy Iakovos

Jimmy Iakovos is a pseudonym for a writer who is incarcerated in Georgia. It is illegal in some Southern states to earn a living while under a sentence of penal servitude. Writing has enabled Jimmy to endure over 30 years of continuous imprisonment.

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