Operation Transformation’s Stefano Sweetman and husband talk quitting smoking ahead of HSE QUIT campaign

Operation Transformation’s Stefano Sweetman and his husband Gerard spoke to GCN about their experience with HSE QUIT.

Gerard Sweetman and Stefano Sweetman, both of whom are using HSE QUIT.
Image: Instagram: @gersweets

On Wednesday, March 2, as a part of National No Smoking Day, the HSE is calling on members of the Irish population to quit the habit by participating in their 28-day no smoking challenge. The organisation has recruited seven Quit leaders to encourage participants, and share their journeys towards a smoke-free life.

One of these leaders is Stefano Sweetman, who has been documenting his Quit journey on RTE’s Operation Transformation alongside his husband Gerard. The pair started smoking at ages 12 and 14 respectively, and Stefano admits that the longest he had gone without cigarettes in 20 years was probably half a day.

When remembering their reasoning for starting smoking, they said it was mainly down to peer pressure. However, they also agreed that the stress of growing up queer certainly had an impact, as smoking was used as a way to alleviate the stress of being closeted and coming out.



Before taking part in the challenge, Stefano remembered: “I was buying two boxes a day, so I was probably smoking 35 fags a day. And I had to have a second box coming home from work. If I knew I [only] had five fags in the box I actually probably wouldn’t sleep […] my anxiety would be through the roof.”

The pair noted that Covid-19 lockdowns, combined with working from home, made their dependence on smoking significantly worse.

“I was gone to buying sticks of fags. It was like 200 fags in a crate,” Stefano began. “I was at home because we were out of work for the whole of lockdown because there was no hairdressers open. So I was smoking way more.”

Stefano also confessed that he had been lying to his family and partner about how much he was smoking during the period, and it became a real financial burden for the pair who estimated that they were spending around €13,000 a year on cigarettes.



Alongside this, the couple was also growing more concerned for their health.

“When lockdown came in, we were locked in because we were afraid if we caught [Covid] that we wouldn’t get through it,” Stefano recalled. 

“When Covid came, I really freaked out,” Gerard added. However, “It didn’t stop us,” he said. “You see all those ads and you see everything about Covid, and it still didn’t stop us smoking.”

It wasn’t until Stefano had a real health scare that they made the decision to cut back, and eventually quit. 

“‘If I don’t change now, I probably won’t even be here when I’m 40’ – that’s what was in my head because my breathing was gone so bad. I couldn’t even walk up the stairs with my breathing,” he said.

“When I went on assessment day for Operation Transformation, doing the 12-minute beep test, I actually thought I was going to be carted into an ambulance and taken to the hospital. I was ready for death. I couldn’t breathe. And I think that gave me the biggest fright ever.”

The pair didn’t take a cold turkey approach, and instead, with the help of the HSE QUIT service and Stop Smoking Advisor Angela Radley, they decided to gradually cut down, and then picked a date where they would stop smoking completely.

The first week with no cigarettes was “the toughest week ever,” Stefano explained, and overall, the 28-days were a real challenge. However, thanks to the pair’s resilience and the support they received from the HSE QUIT team, they are now five weeks smoke-free.

Reflecting on the experience of quitting so far, Stefano said: “To sit here today and say we’re five weeks off cigarettes is just unbelievable […] I feel on top of the world, like I can breathe.”

The pair have noticed significant health and financial benefits, with Gerard saying: “We’re seeing the effects already of how much we can save and it’s only five weeks in.”

Stefano added, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever decided to do.”

According to Dr Paul Kavanagh, HSE Public Health Medicine Specialist, “One in two smokers will die from tobacco-related disease and a smoker can expect to lose on average about 10 years of life due to smoking.

“Stopping smoking is the single most important thing you can do for your health, for your future and for your loved ones.”

National Lead of the HSE Tobacco Free Ireland Programme, Martina Blake, added: “An important step that people often miss out on is the preparation. Setting a date to quit and equipping yourself with the information, tools and supports you need to quit will make a huge difference.

“Get in touch with the QUIT Service now and get ready to quit this March. If you have quit before, you know that you can do it again and this time for good.”

The HSE QUIT service provides personalised, free support by phone, email, text, and live chat. Consultations can also be arranged between smokers and local stop smoking advisors, with the QUIT website providing tips and resources for stopping smoking, alongside a free QUIT kit and the tools to create a QUIT plan.

There is also peer-to-peer support available on the HSE QUIT Facebook and Twitter pages. If you can quit smoking for 28 days, you are five times more likely to quit for good, and QUIT.ie will support you along every step of the journey.

Make March #TheLastStop.

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