Why It Can Be Difficult To Quit Smoking

By: Wendy Gorman

Most people are aware of the addictive nature of the smoking habit, although it affects different people in different ways. Sometimes smokers can quit the habit easily, while others just find it impossible to give up the 'weed'. The addictive element in tobacco is nicotine. Traces of nicotine are contained within each puff of smoke inhaled by the user and therefore becomes present in the lungs, where it is immediately and easily absorbed directly into the bloodstream and thus finds its way to the brain. Its fast acting effect on the chemistry of the smoker's brain alters both mood and focus. This process is reinforced with each puff of the cigarette and given the volume and surface area of the average human lung, the avid smoker receives a large and continuing dose of nicotine throughout the time spent actively smoking.

It is that part of the brain, known as the mid-brain, that controls emotional feelings and moods that is most susceptible to the influence of nicotine. This results in feelings of pleasure and well being, which can turn to anxiety and ill feeling once the dosage stops, even to cravings for more. These feelings can to some extent be diminished by using such devices as chewing gum to mask the craving or nicotine patches to feed the craving without the more harmful effect of inhalation. Smokers who try to quit are trying to beat a double whammy. Firstly, the physical addiction to nicotine is reinforced by the very immediacy with which its pleasures can be obtained. Secondly, they have to overcome the psychological association they have of a cigarette and pleasurable experiences.

In addition to the physical aspects of addiction, smokers are subject to peer pressure cultural influences and social customs. For the average smoker, going to the pub or at the end of a meal are times when they naturally light up a cigarette as part of the socializing process. A particularly vulnerable time for those with the habit, comes when under stress. As well as these influences, it is clear that that some individuals are more prone to nicotine addiction than others. There is probably a genetic explanation for this. It appears that some smokers absorb nicotine at a higher rate, which leads to greater addiction tendencies. Once in the body, nicotine is chemically broken down by a particular enzyme contained in the liver. There is evidence to show that where a genetic defect exists, which reduces the presence of the enzyme, that person is less likely to smoke. Additionally, compared to someone with a normal level of the enzyme, the addictive effect is somewhat reduced and they actually smoke fewer cigarettes.

Despite these psychological, genetic and cultural pressures, habitual smokers may take comfort in the fact that it is still possible to quit the smoking habit. Clearly it is an easier goal for some more than others, but there are organizations and self-help groups out there ready to help. Anti smoking counselling is always beneficial and physical help is always available through medical treatment. The psychological aspects are also well understood.

Nicotine in some respects is just like any other addictive substance and the longer a person has been exposed to it, the longer it will take to give it up. Smokers in their twenties may find it easier to kick the habit than an older person who has been smoking for twenty years. Although the latter of course probably has the extra motivation of understanding, and indeed feeling, some of the harmful consequences the habit carries with it.


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