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Is There a Difference Between a Slip and a Relapse?


slipper slopeDebates between ex-smokers about the meanings of 'slip' and 'relapse' are often contentious. Such discussions generally reflect fears that a break in tobacco abstinence makes full relapse inevitable, or that anything short of NOPE (Not One Puff Ever) implies permission to light up at will. Many insist that quit-dates should measure absolute abstinence from tobacco, and that loose quit-smoking definitions threaten quit-smoking peers. Dually-addicted ex-smokers often object that if alcoholics or junkies ingested even a tiny amount of alcohol or heroin, they'd have to start over and change their sobriety date. The common consensus of these debates is that there should be no distinction made between slips and relapses. 

So Is There a Difference Between Slips and Relapses?

In the quit-smoking world, a slip is defined as a simple break in abstinence, while a relapse is considered a return to previous smoking levels and behaviors. Both terms refer to smoking episodes, with the primary difference being the degree, duration or severity of smoking. Seems pretty cut and dry, but the issue gets more complicated when we consider a common psychological phenomenon called the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE).  If you've ever broken a New Year's Resolution or gone off a diet, you've probably experienced the AVE yourself; it's that little voice that told you, "You messed up, so you might as well give up." Among smokers, the AVE usually manifests as, "Well, you already had a puff and blew your quit, so just go ahead and buy a pack (or a carton)."

Post-slip inventories often uncover thought and behavior patterns that led to the abstinence break, but slips typically appear to be spontaneous, coming 'out of the blue' in moments of anxiety, boredom, or lowered inhibition. The power of the AVE requires an urgent response. Research consistently indicates that if promptly addressed, most slips can be stopped in their tracks before the AVE sets in. Treating a slip as just a temporary bump in the road can more effectively prevent a full relapse than heated arguments about definitions, resetting quit-dates or quit-stats, etc.

[Note: What distinguishes smoking slips from those of other addictions is environment: ex-smokers are more likely to have been breathing the secondhand smoke of others prior to their slip, meaning they were already ingesting their drug of choice before they made a choice to use it. In alcoholic terms, this would be analogous to a sober person drinking a diet Coke into which his peers were methodically dropping small amounts of booze.]

In our opinion, the question isn't really about slips vs relapses, it's about what the ex-smoker's attitude ought to be during the quit, and what their response should be if a slip occurs. The default position during quitting must be N.O.P.E. at all times. Not One Puff Ever. No level of smoking is safe, and any deviation from that position threatens the health of everyone connected to the smoker. But since nicotine is one of the most powerful addictive substances known to humans, and use of it can transcend normal willpower, we must be prepared for a slip and ready to prevent its escalation into full relapse. All other questions about quit-dates, accumulated time, and quit-statistics should be dealt with later on, once the quit is again secure. First Things First.

So What Does All This Mean to Ex-Smokers, and Those Who Support Them?

To the 'slipper': Avoid bad environments whenever possible, until you're strong enough to handle them. Pay more attention to your triggers. Connect with your support network often (and immediately, if you slip), by phone, text, internet, or personal visit, and next time reach out before you take that puff. Examine the thought patterns that seduced you into the lie about 'just one'. Be grateful you dodged the bullet this time; next time you may not be so lucky.

To those who care about the 'slipper': Try to be supportive, and be upset at the addiction, not the addict. Use tough love if you feel the need, but remember that slips and relapses are often part of the process, and can convince apathetic ex-smokers to be more committed to their quits. A good rule of thumb? "Say what you mean, but don't say it mean." Don't pressure the slipper to define quitting your way, or you may make it easier for them to conclude they can't succeed. And remember that tobacco is the toughest addiction of all to beat; if you've been smoke-free yourself since day one, you are blessed -- but not invulnerable.

KTQ, and visit QuitNet if you think you might slip,

Alan P, MTTS



my quit day was supose to be 4/30/2012 . 
good news for me. 
I yust did quit two days ago and going stronger.
Posted @ Thursday, April 26, 2012 6:06 PM by Errol
I did quit! i know is hard but is never impossible. 
I tell my self that i want to live longer and healthier for me and my familly. 
For any one out there thinking in your quit day, do it before the quit day.  
Be strong, possitive and have confidence on your self. 
I did smok for 20 years i'm 50 years old and iquit. So you can !
Posted @ Thursday, April 26, 2012 6:32 PM by Errol Lazo
I quit at 39 after smoking for about 25 yrs. Some days are still hard, some days are easy. It's all worth it though. had 2 slips yet still consider myself quit. Both slips out partying with the girls. Too much of a trigger for me. Have to hang out with my smoke your friends for now.
Posted @ Saturday, April 28, 2012 7:48 AM by jen
I quit - it's been two years and one month! I quit after 25 years of smoking. If I can do it, you can too! I still have my moments but 99.9% of the time lately I forget I was even a smoker! It's worth it, you'll see!
Posted @ Monday, April 30, 2012 1:10 AM by Star044
I wonder if anyone's ever done research on what %-age of "slippers" AVOID relapse? In all the back and forth debate on the site about slips and relapse, I recall only ONCE seeing a long-term (over a year) quitter post to say that he'd slipped on Day X and continued right on with the quit for months/years afterward.  
I realize that's not scientific evidence, but I do think it speaks volumes when such huge numbers post to say a slip led them to full relapse.  
As this blog post notes, "nicotine is one of the most powerful addictive substances known to humans, and use of it can transcend normal willpower". That seems to make it all the more dangerous to toy with the notion of "slipping", as though it is common/likely/probable that someone can regain control and just forge ahead. In what I've observed, that almost never happens. 
Which is why I will never call smoking "slipping."
Posted @ Monday, April 30, 2012 8:27 PM by moggyfan
I have slipped a few times since my quit date....never smoking a full cigarette but all the same, I slipped. I know I can do this....It is a MUST!!!!!  
Posted @ Tuesday, May 01, 2012 8:33 PM by Trish
My actual quit date was February 1, I have slipped a few times, but now it seems to be getting harder, my husband smokes and now I am smoking butts out of his ashtray, it is happening more often even though I know I shouldn't be doing it. I am still trying.
Posted @ Monday, May 07, 2012 5:22 PM by Diane
I am now conviced that NOPE is the only "default position". I have convinced myself many times a slip is not a reason to start a day count over. It is a reason to start a day count over, its no crime, its just necessary to really quit smoking.
Posted @ Thursday, May 10, 2012 5:58 AM by Rob
Wow, havent been on here for years, Seems like ages since I quit cold turkey, Jan. 2005. I have no desire to smoke now. Can't stand the smell and feel great.Started my wedding cake business in 2009.
Posted @ Sunday, June 10, 2012 5:25 PM by Pam
Oh, what a pain in the azz it is to quit smoking. I am so angry I ever happened to touch ONE. Then, I find that tobacco is QUITTING ME. Now, I need to quit it. It might not be as simple as I thought....
Posted @ Saturday, February 02, 2013 1:10 AM by pipetobacco
I have been smoke free for a whole year. Have over the last two weeks sneaking puffs off friends and smoking a few a day again. I feel so horrible with myself. I got such a nice buzz off the ciggie - and now ai am finding it tough to not go straight back to 25 a day habit.
Posted @ Saturday, February 01, 2014 5:52 PM by Tui
I have had a relapse and I hate myself. Stopped smoking 7 months ago and I bought 10 last week and just bought another 10. The trigger was I have started to feel really sad and weepy.
Posted @ Sunday, September 21, 2014 11:48 AM by April
I quit in 2005, after 40 years of smoking. I finally made it on my 4th time of trying. My thoughts? Why would we do something we know very well could kill us?
Posted @ Sunday, September 21, 2014 12:02 PM by Pam
I dont know if I can get through this. 5 days now without nicotine. Those five days were filled only with some long winded attacks which I defeated. In the end I did not want to fight anymore. It became too existential.
Posted @ Friday, November 14, 2014 7:31 PM by Jake
I smoked for around ten years starting at 14. 
I quit cold turkey eight months ago but I got really drunk last night and had no more than four drags off a cigarette, I feel really bad, I'm not even addicted, I think it was just because I was in an old environment where I would've smoked loads. I had a drag and it felt horrible, I woke up with loads of phlegm. I hope my body heals. Can anybody help with the healing process?  
Can't believe I let myself down like that
Posted @ Wednesday, December 24, 2014 7:28 AM by Micky wagstaff-irons
i quit smoking 6 months ago and slipped by smoking 2 ciggies. 
i smoked on a stag do where everyone was smoking.this was saturday night. 
i havent touched one since. 
i told those around me what happened and take solace in knowing that as long as i dont smoke again this episode will make stronger. 
i smoked for 25yrs at 30 a day and stopped cold turkey 11 oct 2014.
Posted @ Monday, April 13, 2015 2:59 AM by colin
Smoked for over 7 years now since year 2008 and has quit for 2 months with champix but relapsed due to my ineffectiveness at work. Was at the edge of getting fired due to my bad character and not working hard because at nights i couldnt sleep enough and felt tired. After 1 month of relapse. Went cold turkey. Now at my 1 month with 3-4 slips. I had a puff this morning and is now promising to not to take a puff. As always. Is it ok to understand that notwithstanding the slips, i ve been quit for 1 month?
Posted @ Thursday, July 02, 2015 9:27 PM by hajb
Slips are a part of quitting. Just keep trying, it's a learning expierence.
Posted @ Thursday, July 02, 2015 9:35 PM by Pam
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