Chad Russ didn’t recognize how entrenched his vaping habit had become until he took a hit from his e-cigarette—without meaning to—in the middle of a nicotine cessation support group.

He may never have even realized he did it if the instructor hadn’t noticed and called him out on it.

“She goes, ‘Are you vaping?’ And I looked down and, sure enough, it’s in my hand—and I literally do not even remember doing that,” said Russ, 43, of Hudsonville, Michigan.

“It really put a mirror up to how much this addiction is interwoven with my daily life and also how much power it has. So it really shocked me and embarrassed me, but it also gave me a kick in the butt that I needed.”

A COVID-19 challenge

This episode happened after Russ had completed Quit 101, a free, four-week tobacco and nicotine cessation class from Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine.

Russ took the class via teleconference in May, after in-person programs stopped because of the coronavirus pandemic. He ultimately quit vaping on July 1.

Libby Stern, NCTTP, a certified tobacco treatment specialist and a former smoker, leads the Quit 101 program. She gives Russ high praise for changing his ingrained behaviors and overcoming the challenges of addiction.

Quitting is hard enough during normal times, but during a pandemic it can feel almost impossible.

“The fear and the panic that this whole pandemic is evoking—for a lot of people it just kind of immobilizes them in terms of being able to cope with quitting,” she said.

“Being successful in this situation can be even more of a challenge.”

Stern gets no argument from Russ. He long relied on vaping as a way to manage anxiety—and the coronavirus threat provided a near-constant source of anxiety.

But at the same time, he said, the pandemic gave him the motivation to quit.

“With COVID, I really decided that I have to quit this … because one of the big symptoms is its effect on the lungs,” he said.

“I don’t want to take the chance that I could become very sick, or even more sick than an average person, because of the vaping.”

Learning about the secondhand effects of vaping provided further motivation for Russ, who lives with his wife and their 6-year-old son.

Russ tried to quit once before, in 2019.

He even joined Quit 101, back when the class met in person. But the stresses of life got in the way that time and he dropped out without finishing the course.

The second time around, he built on what he learned from Stern the first time. Her mindful vaping strategies proved especially helpful, he said.

The idea?

“To change your habits so that you actually focus on smoking or vaping,” Russ said.

“So instead of having it intertwine with your daily life—you know, I’m in the car, I’m going to smoke. Or I’m at breakfast, I’m going to have a cigarette—you take time out of your schedule and say, ‘OK, at this time I’m going to smoke, and I’m going to go to this location and I’m not going to do anything else.’”

By being intentional about your behavior, you can start to separate your addiction from your triggers, Russ said.

“I thought that was huge.”

Disrupting the cycle

If being mindful of his behaviors was Step 1, intentionally disrupting the cycle became Step 2.

Following Stern’s suggestions, Russ practiced spacing his vape breaks out over longer periods. He avoided vaping in his customary places. He left his vape pen in the car to keep it out of reach.

These tricks helped wean him from the habit, but Russ put off quitting outright.

Finally, during a phone call in June, Stern—who offers ongoing coaching for class alumni—challenged Russ to pick a quit date and make it stick.

With nicotine patches and lozenges on hand to ease the cravings, Russ took up the challenge and threw out his vaping supplies.

Today, he takes full advantage of the twice-monthly Quit 101 support group to keep his addiction in check.

“I think the problem pops up when you stop thinking about it,” he said.

“Taking time out to focus on it … to help other people do it or to hear positive stories—all the communication that takes place—yeah, I’m a real big believer in those things.”

Stern sees the relationships she develops with class participants as key to the program’s success.

“I try to personalize the experience so they get to know me a little bit and I get to know them a little bit and can offer them a more personalized approach,” she said.