Smoking is highly addictive. Smokers become physically dependent on the nicotine found in cigarettes, making it very hard to quit. What’s more, smoking causes 80% of lung cancers in the UK1, and one in every five deaths in the USA.2
Here, we will shed some light on what it really means to be addicted to tobacco, why quitting smoking is so difficult for so many, and how kicking the habit can be made easier.
Why is smoking addictive?
The science of addiction is still somewhat debated, but what we do know is that addiction is an impairment of the brain’s reward system. Our brains have evolved to learn and reinforce habits that are essential to our survival. Generally, if we heed our basic urges to eat or drink, the brain’s reward system is activated, the habit of eating or drinking is reinforced, and our survival is ensured. When someone takes up smoking, a similar process occurs. Nicotine, the addictive chemical in tobacco leaves, activates and stimulates the brain’s reward system. The brain adapts to this new, enjoyable stimulus. In time, the brain will be tricked into thinking it needs nicotine in order for the body to survive, just as much as it needs food or water.3
Once this imbalance of the brain is set in place, it is extremely difficult to reverse. In those who try to quit ‘cold-turkey’ without any nicotine replacement therapy, the brain believes it is being deprived of something essential for the body to function. The body will do whatever it can to convince them to satisfy their craving. This is manifested as withdrawal symptoms.
Ways to quit
While quitting cold turkey is an option, it is not the easiest. In the past few decades, several methods have been developed to gradually reduce the body’s dependence on nicotine, and eventually eliminate it altogether.
Nicotine replacement therapy aims to satisfy nicotine cravings while cutting out the rest of the toxic chemicals found in regular cigarettes. While nicotine is toxic no matter how it is consumed, it is far healthier to apply nicotine patches or chew nicotine gum and gradually reduce the dose over time.
Using several methods at once may prove most effective. Using patches and gum, but also seeking counselling, could increase the likelihood of a smoker permanently kicking their habit. Research shows that smokers are more likely to quit successfully when using a combination of therapies and using a helpline or support group.
When it comes to smoking, misconceptions abound. Here are some of the most common.
“Quitting ‘cold-turkey’ is the best method to stop smoking”
Going cold-turkey is an abrupt and extreme way to stop smoking. Forcing the body to get by without a substance that it has come to rely on to function properly can be debilitating, both physically and mentally. Though commitment and willpower are essential and can be sufficient for some smokers to manage, it is almost always more effective and healthier to seek out other methods to treat nicotine addiction and gradually wean oneself off cigarettes for good, with a smaller chance of relapsing.4
“I tried quitting and failed, so there is no point trying again”
One of the most important aspects of quitting is perseverance. The addictive nature of smoking makes it likely that those who try to quit will relapse. Rather than being seen as a failure, a relapse can be a chance to learn about what triggered it, and make the next attempt even more effective than the last.
“If the damage is already done, there is no point in quitting”
No matter how long a person has smoked, quitting will always have huge health benefits. Even after just 20 minutes cigarette-free, blood pressure and pulse begin to fall back to a normal rate. After a day without smoking, toxic carbon monoxide levels in the blood drop back to normal. Within a year, the risk of suffering a heart attack is halved.5 It is never too late to quit.
“Lung cancer is the only disease smokers should worry about”
False. Although smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, the 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes, 69 of which are known carcinogens, can cause a host of other diseases, like oral cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and cataracts. Smoking is known as “the world’s most preventable cause of death,” and with good reason.6
As we wrap up #HealthAhead next week, we will be looking at the best healthcare stories of the summer. Share your tips for quitting smoking using the #HealthAhead hashtag, and your comment might be featured in our round-up of the summer’s best social media interactions.