Not ‘A List’ yet, but two years (now almost four) without cigarettes feels awesome



This was published Feb. 11, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission. (Editor’s note: Feb. 15, 2017 marks four years since I’ve had a cigarette).

By David Heitz

You could find me there every night, at the corner of 69th and Mary streets. Beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. On the weekends, sometimes you could find me there 12 hours a day, “pulling double shifts,” as I used to tell the bar owner.

Definitely NOT the corner of happy and healthy, at least not for me.

Today marks two years since I gave up cigarettes. The day after Memorial Day I’ll celebrate a year without alcohol.

It was tough finding a picture of me with a cigarette. I usually wouldn’t allow pictures of me smoking. I found this pic that a friend posted on Facebook in 2010 after Iowa’s no-smoking law went into effect.

Actually, I sort of like the picture. I do look happy, and I certainly had lots of great times at the bar where I used to hang out. But changing your life really does have to be all about changing faces and places sometimes, even if it means leaving behind the good memories as well as the bad.

Immediate disclosure: I still have a few vices, not the least of which is Willy Wonka candy. I’m sharing my story not to sound like Mary Poppins, but to relay how disgusted I became with myself. My sort of “rock bottom,” I guess.

The truth is, I gave up smoking because I always considered it “low class.” That’s right. It sounds horrible and arrogant, it makes me sound elitist and awful, but even as a child, I seemed to notice that people who smoked always had so many other darned problems.

It may be boiling it down to an extremely superficial level, and maybe there’s not always causation between a person’s problems and their smoking habit, but to a casual observer there certainly does appear to be correlation many times.

Do teenagers still say “smoking is for losers?”

When my generation was younger, we called the kids who smoked in high school “burnouts” or “lunch loggers,” because at my school they sat on a giant log adjacent to the student parking lot and puffed away during lunch.

At what point did it become OK for so many of us who should know better to smoke?

I say this even though my parents BOTH smoked. And they both had lots of problems, health-related and otherwise.

So I am just going to put out there that at a young age I noticed the happier, and, indeed, more successful people in life, seemed to be non-smokers. Of course, this was in the 1970s, when LOTS of people smoked. All I knew was that I associated cigarettes with “people with problems,” and non-smokers with success and happiness, and I wanted to be one of the happy and successful people.

And so I was a complete and, at times, very nasty, anti-cigarette snob all the way up until moving to Los Angeles. Then I added cigarettes to my beer. Then I began doing hard drugs, which can turn even a non-smoker into a pack-a-day person. Easily.

And I’ll skip all of the juicy stuff that happened in between, but two years ago I found myself fat, hung over, crying and depressed, wondering if life was even worth living, lying in the basement of the house I grew up in. I had moved back to Illinois in 2002 to escape a crystal meth addiction and to help take care of dad. While I was happy I had survived the meth and felt lucky to be alive, I hadn’t been living much of a life since the day I moved back.

In theory, I was taking care of my dad. But I wasn’t qualified for that job either, and after a hard day at the office, I’d spend a hard night at the tavern. Eventually I quit my job.

What a horrible mess my life had become.

I don’t advocate for any sort of religion, but the higher power thing has indeed brought some peace into my life. On that day that I woke up hung over, depressed, in the basement of the house I grew up in, I prayed to God for change, any kind of change. Something just had to change.

Because, man, did I have a lot of problems!

So I decided my part of the deal would be to stop smoking. That would be my first change. That’s the deal I made with God.

After all, how anyone could continue to smoke when we all know about how bad it is for you is…well…not congruent with being a smart person, which of course for years I have associated with happiness and success. So I knew that in terms of getting off the wrong path, I might want to start with giving up the deplorable cigarettes.

Things in my life did begin to change when I gave up cigarettes. Maybe it was just because I finally had at least some sense of self-worth after years of feeling like a louse. I was able to make decisions and stand up for myself, perhaps. I found that I believed in myself much more, and that my confidence really escalated very quickly the longer I went without a cigarette.

Honestly, it hasn’t even been too difficult giving up smoking. But it was harder for me to quit smoking than to quit drinking. Even when you know smoking is terrible and gross, the nicotine craving still nudges at you sometimes. Booze, on the other hand, almost never enters my consciousness anymore, even after only 9 months without it.

In the madness of giving up booze and cigarettes, somehow 70 pounds fell off during that two-year period, too. But 30 of them have come back on. With every challenge I face each day, I try a new approach to solving it. I’m doing everything in life differently. Something as simple as not answering the phone when I don’t want to, or not responding to an unpleasant email in a knee-jerk way…I’m getting so much more done by slowing down and doing less. Anything to keep the anxiety low.

People ask what the key has been to turning my life around in terms of getting rid of booze and cigarettes and losing weight. My advice is to just shake everything up, change every routine possible, find new, healthier addictions if you have to.

My new addiction is social media. Zuckerberg gets my money now, because I have turned my professional Facebook page, David Heitz Health, into a little hobby.

But it’s better than spending my dough on beer and cigarettes. And it certainly keeps me social in a place where it’s a lot easier to be me than a tavern.

I probably will be called “arrogant,” grand” and every other name in the book for this. But that’s OK. Maybe my story will ring true even with one other person and convince them to give up the poo-poo sticks, whatever their reason may be. Because there are a million of them.


Even when you’re ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ smoking isn’t sexy. How Mark Ballas quit



Originally published Aug. 25, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission.

By David Heitz

Even when you’re one of Hollywood’s hottest performers, smoking just ain’t sexy.

That may be why so many celebrities are closet smokers. That, and by now everyone should know better. Celebrities know that, too.

“A lot of people in Hollywood who use their voice and their body smoke,” said Mark Ballas of “Dancing with the Stars” fame in a telephone interview with me on Monday. “But I think that when you’re a smoker, subconsciously you know that what you’re doing is wrong. At some point I said, ‘I really need to stop now. This is getting ridiculous.’”

It wasn’t image that compelled Ballas to finally quit – it was his health. “It got to where

I was knocking out 20 (cigarettes) a day,” he said. “One day, I was in class, and I was running out of steam. It was affecting my breathing. That was a wake-up call, because

I need my body, being a performer, dancing and singing and doing what I do. I’m on stage all the time, and I need to feel good.”\

When I quit in February 2013, I had a similar epiphany. I had become completely disgusted with myself.

Related News: Are e-cigarettes a healthy way to quit smoking?

 Lighting up and fitting in as a U.K. teen

Ballas said he started lighting up at 16. “Cigarettes are super accessible (in Great Britain). My friends smoked, and so I picked up the habit at a young age. You think, ‘I’m invincible. It’s not going to affect me.’”

He said he tried to quit many times once he knew he had had enough, beginning at about the age of 25 or 26. But nothing worked. “I would smoke a little less, but I always came back to it.”

Finally, he tried NicoDerm CQ, and it worked for him. “I liked the patch because I’m dancing all day, and I didn’t want to think about it.”

Ballas said he declined to even consider being a spokesman for NicoDerm until he knew for sure that the product worked. “And it did work for me, so I decided I wanted to be an advocate and help other people.”

Also joining the telephone conversation Monday was Mark’s mom Shirley. Shirley is a dancing legend in her own right, who smoked for four decades. Ballas was raised by his mother and grandmother, and smoke was everywhere.

Related News: My interview with “WKRP in Cincinnati” bombshell Loni Anderson, caregiver for her parents with COPD

“I’ve had a special relationship with Mark for many years, and I saw him trying, so I said, ‘Let’s do it together,’” Shirley explained. She chose Nicorette to quit. “I tried the gum, because it keeps your breath fresh and I like the taste of it. It worked for me.”

 Quit in September: It’s all about you

Mark and Shirley are encouraging everyone to participate in what they’re calling SELFtember. What is SELFtember all about? “We’re coming out of vacation mode, coming out of summer. It’s time to get back to the gym, time to start work and school. It’s time to snap back to reality,” Mark Ballas said.

“We want people to be inspired to live a healthier lifestyle,” he continued. “In the summer, maybe you were smoking more than usual because you had more free time. Let SELFtember be a catalyst to quit, a catalyst for living a healthier lifestyle.”

Shirley also plugged an idea she calls “What’s Your Why?” The What’s Your Why? ™ campaign asks smokers to share their motivational reasons for wanting to quit smoking. It helps a smoker envision what the future could hold when he or she succeeds. It puts the quitter’s goals front and center, whether they’re big dreams or little victories.

Related News: Does switching to e-cigarettes make your body any healthier?

Mark and being around to spend time with her grandchildren are Shirley’s whys, she said. You can learn more about a day-long event being held at Santa Monica Pier in Southern California, where smoking cessation aids will be handed out free.

Save your cigarette money, buy a house in Beverly Hills

Being smoke-free is being good to Mark, who hopes to have a career as successful as Jared Leto’s. He admires Leto, an actor, singer, song writer and director best known for his role as Jordan Catalano on the television hit “My So-Called Life.”

“Jared Leto has had an amazing acting career, he’s had his band … back in the day, artists like Michael Jackson did more than just one thing,” Mark Ballas said. ”It’s OK to do more than one thing. I don’t like people to get pigeon-holed.”

Ballas also has a band, has written songs, has starred on Broadway and now has a new business venture. Ballas just opened his first dance studio, Mark Ballas Dance and Performing Arts, in North Carolina and hopes to open nine more by year’s end. His debut single, “Get My Name,” rose to No. 24 on the iTunes Pop Chart. A whopping 20 million viewers a week tune in to watch him on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Has being smoke-free added to his amazing success?

“I feel like quitting has been a big help to my focus and my mental capacity and for targeting goals and reaching them,” Ballas said. “It’s great not to be wheezing and coughing. I feel way better. I do feel a huge difference, plus I was burning money with a terrible habit.”

That saved cigarette money adds up. He made headlines earlier this week for his purchase of a $2.52 million “fixer-upper” in L.A.’s esteemed Beverly Crest neighborhood.

He says if he can quit smoking, anyone can. “It’s OK to be outside your comfort zone. If I can do it, anyone can do it. You’ve got to have the balls to do it.”

Learn More: More tips for coping with nicotine withdrawal