About Smoking - A Guide to Stop Smoking
Many of us know what smoking is but what it is about this activity that is addictive for some of us but not others? What causes people to take up smoking in the first place and to persist with this, even though it is increasingly seen as an anti-social habit?
Smoking as an addiction
The clue is in the word ‘habit’: smoking is very addictive due to the presence of nicotine, a substance found in tobacco and cigarettes which acts as a stimulant. This causes a release of adrenaline and endorphins which makes you feel good and at ease with yourself and your surroundings. And this is a feeling that you’ll want to experience time and time again.
How often have you woke up first thing in the morning and reached for a cigarette? If the weather is miserable, you have financial worries, stress at work etc then lighting up a cigarette banishes all of that. That first cigarette makes things better and turns what could have been a negative day into a positive one. So there is the attraction of smoking.
How does nicotine work?
Effects of nicotine on the body
Nicotine is a chemical which is found in the leaves of the tobacco plant. This along with tar and tobacco are the main components of cigarettes although they also contain numerous chemicals, many of which are potentially harmful.
Cigarette smoke contains nicotine which enters your bloodstream and is then transported to your brain. Once there it acts as a stimulant, causing an increase in your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. This is because certain hormones such as adrenaline are released which lead to a surge in energy.
This is why you feel confident and upbeat when you have a cigarette.
Nicotine also restricts insulin release which many smokers believe is responsible for their appetite suppression. Some smokers, especially young women see this as a positive aspect as they see this as a useful means of controlling their weight and staying slim into the bargain.
But the opposite can happen when trying to quit. Many people find that they put on weight once they stop smoking but there is usually a very good reason for this. What happens is that they pick at food more in order to keep their hands busy and to stop them reaching for a cigarette. If this calorie intake is not matched by an increase in calorie expenditure then weight will be gained.
Nicotine is also responsible for that ‘high’ you experience once you have lit a cigarette. Your brain releases a chemical called dopamine which causes feelings of relaxation and pleasure which your body gets used to very quickly.
This dependency means that you need increased amounts of nicotine to maintain these feelings. This means an increase in the number of cigarettes smoked and duration. So what tends to occur is a state in which you are constantly smoking in order to prevent nicotine withdrawal symptoms or feelings of depression.
The first time you have a cigarette is usually an unpleasant one but your body adapts over time. What started as a couple of cigarettes a day soon lead to 20 or more.
Nicotine is so addictive that some people find that if they start smoking again after giving up that they soon revert to their original habit. So if you were smoking 30 a day and then quit, you quickly revert to that number.
Such is the power of nicotine.
Another factor with nicotine is its ability to act as a depressive. You will find that you are moody, depressed or bad tempered when you don’t have a cigarette which is then the trigger to light up.
Nicotine affects you physically as well as mentally. It causes dizziness, nausea and a dry mouth, and can even affect urine production. And there are the negative effects on your health such as contributing to heart disease and strokes. Plus it stains your teeth as well.
The effect of smoking on your health is discussed in greater detail in our Problems with Smoking section.
These are just a few things to think about each time you have a cigarette.
Many of us are addicted to something such as caffeine, drugs, chocolate, gambling, sex, exercise…… There are a variety of reasons for this but one reason is that some people have what is called an ‘addictive personality’. In other words they have the type of personality which is more likely to develop a dependency. They may do this because of stress, an inability to make friends, awkwardness in social situations, anxiety or a lack of self-control.
If that person is uncomfortable in a social situation, for example, visiting the pub then a drink and a cigarette can remove that feeling. And, especially if they are part of a like-minded group of people. Peer pressure is one of the biggest factors here as it is very easy to go along with the wishes of the group and do the same as everyone else. If they are all smokers then you will probably do the same.
As humans we all like to do things which are pleasurable or make us feel good and smoking is one of those things. If you enjoy doing something then you will do it time and time again which is fine if the activity in question is a positive one; but if it likely to negatively impact upon you and/or others then this habit needs to be stopped.
We all pick up habits, some good and some bad but what is important here is recognising that smoking is a bad habit and taking steps to break this habit.
So why do we smoke?
There are a variety of reasons why we start smoking. These include:
- Using smoking as a coping mechanism to deal with anxiety or a lack of confidence.
- Peer pressure.
- A belief that it makes you look cool or more grown up (esp. young people).
- Media images of glamorous models/film stars/celebrities smoking.
- Advertising: tobacco companies rely upon the power of advertising to sell smoking although this has become a lot less acceptable.
If you are part of a family in which your parents smoke or relatives are smokers then you are likely to do the same. Conversely, you might be a member of a family of non-smokers and decide to start as an act of rebellion (especially if you are teenager).
Most smokers started when they were young, usually their teens although a few have started even earlier than that. Having a quick cigarette behind the bike sheds at school has traditionally been seen as part of growing up: a time when young people experiment with drugs, drink and other acts of rebellion.
They have a strong desire to find their own identities and this manifests itself in a variety of ways such as listening to a particular type of music, dressing in a certain way and trying various substances which includes cigarettes. Some young people try this and then grow out of it but others continue with it into adulthood.
This is discussed in greater detail in our Young People and Smoking section.
The damaging effect of smoking on our health is well documented. We are all much more aware of this than we used to be which is why it can seem surprising that some people still choose to smoke. If you are informed that it can cause a whole range of health problems which include heart disease and cancer then why would you continue to do so?
Unfortunately it’s not as straightforward as that. Human beings are unpredictable creatures and no-one truly knows why we sometimes do the things we do. We can be impulsive or swayed by external forces and this equally applies to smoking.
What is the continuing attraction? Cigarettes cost more than they used to be which makes it an expensive activity so why do we continue to do so? People will often look for cheaper alternatives which includes switching to a cheaper brand or ‘rolling your own’ (tobacco pouch). If something is highly addictive and pleasurable then we will continue with it in spite of the risks or the expense.
Whatever the reasons, most people smoke because they are addicted to nicotine. Many of them wish that they didn’t smoke or had never started in the first place but have become used to the effects of smoking which makes it very difficult to give up.
And, added to this are the unpleasant effects of nicotine withdrawal, such as headaches, constipation and fatigue which result in some people reaching for a cigarette.
It takes a great deal of willpower, smoking cessation services and support from family and friends to quit smoking but it can be done. The best of approaching this is to enlist as much help as you can and follow a stopping smoking plan.
More information on this can be found in our Stopping Smoking section.
Stop Smoking Guide
- How to Stop Smoking
- About smoking
- Problems with smoking
- Passive smoking
- Young people and smoking
- Schools’ Anti-Smoking Policies
- Stopping smoking
- The smoking ban
- Exemptions to the smoking ban
- Stop Smoking FAQs
- Stop Smoking Glossary