You have probably heard that former president Barack Obama was one of the 37.8 million Americans who smoked [1]. In fact, like all those millions of Americans, he smoked for most of his life. But, do you know how he quit smoking? There are many lessons to be learned from the 44th president’s journey to kick his smoking habit.

Like almost 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers, Obama started smoking before he turned 18 [2]. As a child, his role models were smokers. In his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, he mentions that his grandfather- his main father figure as a child in Hawaii- smoked. It’s not surprising, then, that by the time he was in high school, he smoked regularly. Children are easily influenced by their family and when they pick up a habit so early in life, it becomes really difficult to break free [3].

Tobacco companies know this, and that’s why they directly target children with their smoking campaigns. Their claims of “looking cool,” and “being a rebel,” are aimed squarely at youth. President Obama tried to combat this by signing the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which bans direct marketing towards children and banned “sweetened” cigarettes that appeals to young kids [4] [5].

President Obama was not immune to the reach of Big Tobacco and witnessing his loved ones smoking left a lasting mark. He grew up smoking regularly, even fondly remembering lighting up a cigarette as a young man in East Harlem with his roommate. Throughout his autobiography, there are almost 70 references to cigarettes and smoking, indicating the huge part it played in his life [6].  

So what made him ready (and able) to quit a habit ingrained since childhood? Read on for the five tools Obama relied on to quit smoking once and for all:

Photo by Charles Postiaux/ Unsplash

1. Recognize smoking is stopping you from doing something you love.

In Dreams of My Father, Obama realized something was off when he first connected cigarettes to his difficulty in playing his beloved game of basketball. As he played basketball at the University of Chicago gym, he realized that he couldn’t keep up and was even a little dizzy by the end of his second game [6].

His daily cigarette habit was affecting something he loved.

Have you noticed cigarettes affecting something you love? Maybe you’re missing important family moments because you have to step outside to light up a cigarette, or you can no longer blow on the trumpet, keep up with your kids- or like Obama- play the sports you enjoy. Whatever it is, realizing that cigarettes are taking away something you love is a game changer in your desire to quit.

2. Recognize that success may be right around your next failure- and forgive yourself.

Obama smoked for 30 years before he quit; it certainly did not happen overnight [7]. It’s common knowledge that he promised his wife, Michelle, that he would quit before running for president. Yet, he did not quit successfully until 2010, two years after the 2008 presidential election [8]. So how did he overcome all the setbacks and failure?

He learned to forgive himself!

The president said “Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No.” He realized that success takes time and he would have to dust himself off and keep trying. Research shows that people who show themselves a little kindness- and realize that setbacks may be part of their road to recovery- are more likely to succeed than those who berate or punish themselves instead [9].

3. Use effective tools to reach your goal.

While some smokers quit “cold turkey,” this may not be the most effective way to go. Research shows that there are effective tools to help quit. Some options to quit smoking include getting help from your doctor, behavioral therapy and individual coaching sessions [10].

Nicotine products are also a great tool to help you to kick the habit.

Obama chewed nicotine gum, like Lucy, to help overcome his addiction, and it worked well for him. Remember, it's ok to get help from tools that have proven results.

Photo by Srikanta / Unsplash

4. Get support from friends and family.

Obama also enlisted the people around him to reach his goal. His trip director and golf partner, Marvin Nicholson, also quit smoking around the same time [11]. Having a friend with the same goals is instrumental in achieving your goals -- it keeps you accountable and motivated [12]. With a friend, you have someone to share your successes and be there if you have a setback. But, the opposite is true:

You sabotage your goals if you surround yourself with people who don’t share them.

Don’t surround yourself with old smoking buddies as you try to quit smoking; they’ll bring you back to your bad habit. Rather, take a page out of Obama’s book and find a village that supports your goals.

5. Have a really good reason to quit smoking.

Obama had a really good reason to quit smoking: he said, “I haven't had a cigarette in six years ... that's because I'm scared of my wife.” All kidding aside, Mrs. Obama clarified that he “kick[ed] the habit because of the girls… he didn’t want to look the girls in the eye and tell them that they shouldn’t do something that he was still doing.” [8]

President Obama’s reason to quit smoking was fundamental to his core sense of self. Yes, he wanted to be a good father and role model for his children, but quitting cigarettes aligned with his core belief in integrity. How could he say one thing to his daughters yet show them something entirely different with his actions?

Each person’s reason is different, but to quit smoking successfully, your reason must align with your core sense of self.

Quitting an addiction like cigarette smoking is an intensely personal journey, and your journey may not be the same as #44. While you must find your unique reason for quitting tobacco, you can use some of Obama’s tools to reach your goal. The desire to be free from addiction is universal and you, too, can join the 1.3 million Americans who quit smoking each year [13]!


[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Current Cigarette Smoking Among Adults in the United Stated,” Smoking & Tobacco Use, Feb 15, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed Aug 1, 2018]

[2] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Youth and Tobacco Use,” Smoking & Tobacco Use. Jun 25, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed Aug 1, 2018]

[3] J. Bricker, A. Peterson, B. Leroux, “Prospective prediction of children’s smoking transitions: roles of parents’ and older sibling’s smoking,” Addiction, vol. 101, pp. 128-36. Jan. 2006

[4] US Food & Drug Administration, “Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act- An Overview,” Jan 17, 2018. [Online]. Tobacco Products, Available: [Accessed Aug 1, 2018]

[5] J. Zeleny, “Occasional smoker, 47, signs tobacco bill,” NY Times, Jun 22, 2009. [Online]. Available: [Accessed Aug 1, 2018]

[6] B. Obama. Dreams of my Father: A story of Race and Inheritance. New York, NY: Crown Publishers: 2004

[7] “Barack Obama quits smoking after 30 years,” The Telegraph. Feb 9 2011. [Online]. Available: [Accessed Aug 1, 2018].

[8] A. Rafferty, S. Klein, “Obama jokes that first lady “scared” him into quitting smoking. NBC News,” NBC News, Nov 2, 2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed Aug 1, 2018].

[9] McGonigal K. The willpower instinct: how self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more it. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2013.

[10] M Fiore, C Jaén, T Baker, Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence: 2008 Update—Clinical Practice Guidelines. Rockville (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2008. [E-Book] Available: NCBI

[11] A. Lockie. “Former House Speaker John Boener describes how Obama struggled with smoking and was “scared to death” of Michelle,” Business Insider. Oct 30, 2017 [Online] Available: [Accessed Aug, 1, 2018]

[12] K. Tracy, S. Wallace, “Benefits of peer support groups in the treatment of addiction,” Subst Abuse Rehabil, vol 7 pp. 143–154. Sep. 2016

[13] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Quitting smoking,” Smoking & Tobacco Use, Feb 1, 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed Aug 1, 2018].