In This Episode: Can you quit a bad habit with willpower? Allen Carr thought that was the hard way, but he had insight into what he called the “Easy Way” that would work better, and saved perhaps millions of lives by quitting his day job to help teach others how. It’s a great story of Uncommon Sense at work.
052: Uncommon Sense the Easy Way
Can you quit a bad habit with willpower? Allen Carr thought that was the hard way, but he had insight into what he called the “Easy Way” that would work better, and saved perhaps millions of lives by quitting his day job to help teach others how. It’s a great story of Uncommon Sense at work.
I’m Randy Cassingham, welcome to Uncommon Sense.
Alan Carr was born in London, England, and was an accountant. He was successful, unknown, and a chain-smoker. He had picked up the habit when he was 18, and he pretty much smoked non-stop, all day every day: he got up to 5 packs a day. He had tried all the usual methods to quit, but they didn’t work. But one attempt he especially remembered was going to a hypnotist.
That didn’t work either — he said, “I lit up the moment I left the clinic and made my way home.” — but he started to think about his discussion with the hypnotist before the session. The therapist had mentioned that smoking was “just nicotine addiction,” and that surprised Carr: it never occurred to him that quite simply, he was a drug addict.
When he got home he talked to his son, John, about it, and John had a medical handbook that he gave his father, and from that Carr learned that the physical withdrawal from nicotine actually isn’t particularly strong: it’s more of an “empty, insecure feeling,” it said, rather than intense physical craving; the cravings smokers feel are psychological. Carr said he realized in that moment, with those two pieces of information, he could quit smoking right then and there, and he never smoked again after that day, which was July 15, 1983. He was 48 years old, and had smoked for 30 years.
That made me wonder about the math: that’s around 44,000 packs of cigarettes. Today, in the U.S. a pack of cigarettes averages $5.50. So someone with that kind of habit pays around $10,000 a year, just on cigarettes. As an accountant, I’m sure Carr had already figured out what it was costing him to smoke, but he was solidly addicted.
But once he had his revelation and quit, within weeks Carr closed his accounting firm and set off to use his ideas to help others quit smoking. He said he realized that smokers had a hard time quitting because they had a fear of giving up, that they’d miss the “genuine enjoyment” they got from tobacco, that not smoking would make them miserable for the rest of their lives. The key to getting around that fear, he decided, wasn’t willpower. It was to figure out how to convince smokers they weren’t “giving up” something, but instead “escaping” from their addiction. Smokers smoke to “feel normal,” he said, when really, “feeling normal” is what non-smokers feel all the time.
His idea was to remove the fear, and provide reassurance of the positive results they’ll see rather than try to scare them about the negative risks, which they rationally already know anyway. In other words, his method appeals to the smokers’ intelligence, their common sense, and that makes it much easier for them to quit smoking — to stop their drug addiction. The physical withdrawal is minor; getting rid of the psychological withdrawal means they won’t crave cigarettes, even when others around them are smoking. That’s a pretty powerful idea.
Carr opened a clinic to help others with his method, and then another and another and another. Today there are Allen Carr clinics in 50 countries.
But …does his method actually work?
Well, it’s certainly not going to work for everyone: they have to have intelligence and some level of common sense! But here’s how this all came up for me this week: I got a letter from Jim in Nevada, a This is True subscriber, and I’m going to read it to you. He had just renewed his subscription, and wanted to tell me something. “In fact,” he said, “I would like to explain why I switched from the free edition to the paid edition.” Here’s what he wrote:
Back around 2006, you ran an Honorary Unsubscribe about a man named Allen Carr, who wrote a book titled ‘The Easy Way to Quit Smoking’. At that point I had been smoking since 1966 and was up to three packs a day. I had tried quitting several times before but it never lasted more than a week. I even tried the patch. I ripped it off and went to the store for more cigarettes after three hours. That was a waste of time and money.
After reading about Mr. Carr I went to Amazon and ordered his book. On the first page he advises to not quit until you finish the book. I stopped reading a couple of chapters short of the end. I set the book down for a couple of weeks and finally finished reading the last of it. I smoked my last cigarette that night before bed and haven’t had one since. Since February 15th 2007 I have not smoked a cigarette. The thing that amazed me the most was that I never had any cravings. I never thought about buying any [cigarettes] when I was at the store, and I am not bothered by other people smoking around me, which was one of the worst things during my previous attempts. Anyway, I decided to share with you some of the money that I am saving by not smoking. Thank You.
That’s a pretty powerful testimonial, but obviously one success story, or even 100 success stories, doesn’t mean most people will get the same result. But I was intrigued enough by Jim’s letter that I went back and re-read that Honorary Unsubscribe, which is in Volume 3 of the book series (coming soon in print, by the way; it’s currently only available for Amazon’s Kindle), and the detail that stood out for me in that write-up from 13 years ago this month is this: “everyone” knows that stopping smoking is so hard that when Carr wrote his book, no publisher would publish it — even though that by then, in 1985, his clinics were already successful. So Carr applied Uncommon Sense to the problem: he published his book himself, and by 2006 he had sold more than 7 million copies. He made millions. He called it “The Easy Way to Stop Smoking”.
And that made another detail stand out: Carr was distressed that Britain’s National Health Service had never even tried his methods, favoring instead the commonly used fear-based tactics, like showing smokers pictures of diseased lungs. He expressed his dismay this way: “Can you imagine if there were ten different ways of treating appendicitis?” he wrote in 1997. “Nine of them cured 10 percent of the patients, which means that they killed 90 percent of them, and the tenth way cured 95 percent. Imagine that knowledge of the tenth way had been available for 14 years, but the vast majority of the medical establishment was still recommending the other nine.”
The current one-year success rate of stop-smoking programs other than Carr’s, by the way, is 12-20 percent, according to a study published in the journal Addiction. I’ll get to Carr’s rate in a minute.
Meanwhile, I wanted to know if things had gotten better in the years since Carr made this complaint. I was shocked to find out that there wasn’t a proper controlled study of Carr’s method even started until …2015. That was done by TobaccoFree Research Institute Ireland, and it was published just last year in the British Medical Journal. The researchers at the independent institute in Dublin didn’t just want to know if people who completed Carr’s treatment considered themselves non-smokers, they wanted to know if it stuck. They followed up with the research subjects after 1, 3, 6, and 12 months to find out, comparing Carr’s method to the Irish government’s health service’s official anti-smoking program, called Quit.ie.
Their conclusion: “All [Allen Carr] quit rates were superior to Quit.ie.” That first of its kind, properly controlled “randomised clinical trial” of Carr’s system proved him right, even if the rate wasn’t quite as high as the clinics advertise. They found the Carr “Easy Way” method’s one-year success rate, measured by complete case analysis methodology, was over 50 percent. If that sounds low, here’s part of the reason why: if a research subject dropped out for any reason, so that their success couldn’t be proven, they were considered to have relapsed. My bet is, not all of them did, so the “real” success rate is likely higher. I’ll link to the journal article on the Show Page, though be warned that it is in a medical journal, so it’s pretty heavy with statistical jargon. But, at least, it is freely available to download or read online without even registering, let alone having to pay for it.
Clearly, Allen Carr was onto something. But in July 2006, he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, even though he had stopped smoking 23 years before. But he didn’t think his smoking is what gave him lung cancer: rather, it’s that even after he quit, he allowed clients to smoke in his clinics until they were ready to quit, and he believed the secondhand smoke is what did it. So, was he angry about that?
“I’m told I’ve cured millions of smokers,” he said after his diagnosis, “and on that basis have no doubts that it was a price worth paying.” He figured that if he hadn’t quit smoking in 1982, he would have died long before 2006. “Since I smoked my final cigarette, 23 years ago,” he said, “I have been the happiest man in the world, [and] I still feel the same way today.” Which, to me, is another indication of his Uncommon Sense: he had an optimistic mindset, a positive way of looking at life as well as what it took to stop smoking. He was about hope, not the fear tactics that so many governments still embrace when it comes to smoking.
Today, his book is still a best-seller, and all of the “Easy Way” books together have sold more than 15 million copies. Carr had adapted his method to other addictions, too, and there are multiple Easy Way books available: the Easy Way to Control Alcohol, the Easy Way to Quit Caffeine, the Easy Way to Stop Gambling, the Easy Way to Mindfulness, the Easy Way to Quit Sugar and Carbohydrate Addiction, the Easy Way for Women to Lose Weight (and no, I didn’t find that one for men!), even the Easy Way to Enjoy Flying and the Easy Way to Debt-Free Living. I’ll put links on the Show Page.
On the Allen Carr web site, it tells the story about a British Army Troop in Iraq. One of them got the book, and quit smoking. He then passed the book on to a buddy, who quit, and passed it on to another buddy. By the time it got to the 45th member of the troop, all of them had quit smoking, one by one, and wrote their service number in the back to keep track.
So, a 90 percent success rate, as the Carr web site claims? Maybe not, but anyone that’s as smart as a soldier has a pretty darned good chance of it, and Allen Carr had enough Uncommon Sense to realize he really was onto something. The study results, in a way, bear that out, too: they reported that smokers with a higher level of education were 3.6 times more likely to succeed in quitting. I’ll read the next part verbatim: “For people with lower education, the quit rate was also greater in the Allen Carr group at each month, but the numbers in this category were small and did not reach statistical significance.” Clearly, the ability to think counts.
Carr had enough warning to make sure his clinics we able to keep going after his death, and they’re still thriving today. I don’t know if it’s some kind of requirement, but most of the people working with smokers, starting with Carr himself, are ex-smokers themselves: they know what their clients are going through, and have personal experience about what didn’t work, and what did.
Carr was 72 when he died from the lung cancer on November 29, 2006, a little more than four months after his diagnosis. But his Uncommon Sense lives on, and is still helping people get healthier and happier.
For a photo of Carr, links to his books, and a place to comment, the “Easy Way” is to visit thisistrue.com/podcast52
I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.
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