Anyone who has ever tried to give up smoking cigarettes knows the meaning of being hooked. Even those who succeed in quitting for the first time suffer the same 75% relapse rate as recovering alcoholics and heroin addicts.
I have several friends who are smokers and despite being gently reminded repeatedly about the health dangers of smoking (and acknowledging so), they still go on with the habit. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has made official what everyone has recognized for a long time: tobacco, like cocaine or heroin, is addictive.
- Everett Koop not only proclaimed that “cigarettes and other forms of tobacco are addicting” but also urged that they should be treated with the same caution as illegal street narcotics. Smoking = narcotics? Sounds like an exaggeration but indeed the comparison is apt: they’re both destructive and addictive habits.
Like many drugs that affect the nervous system, nicotine at once stimulates and relaxes the body. Because it is inhaled, it takes only seven to ten seconds to reach the brain. This is twice as fast as intravenous drugs and three times faster than alcohol. Once there, it mimics some of the actions of adrenaline, a hormone, and acetylcholine, a powerful neurotransmitter that touches off the brain’s alarm system, among other things.
After a few puffs, the level of nicotine in the blood skyrockets, the heart beats faster and blood pressure increases. Result: smokers become more alert and may actually even think faster. In addition, nicotine may produce a calming effect by triggering the release of natural opiates called beta-endorphins. Thus a smoker literally commands two states of mind — alertness and relaxation. As my friend who is a computer graphics designer attests, smoking enables him to work faster and gives him greater clarity of mind.
Nicotine operates on other parts of the body as well. By constricting blood vessels, it casts a pallor over the face and diminishes circulation in the extremities, often causing chilliness in the arms and legs. It relaxes the muscles and suppresses the appetite for carbohydrates. This action probably explains why people who try to quit smoking complain that they end up gaining weight. Indeed, their appetite tends to crank up after quitting and they end up eating more.
These “benefits” of alertness and relaxation, as well as the suppression of appetite account for the difficulty smokers, face when trying to quit the habit.
Not knowing what to do with their hands is another common complaint among ex-smokers while quitting. Once people get hooked, smoking becomes a big part of their lives. They seem to enjoy holding on a stick of cigarette and puffing on them. It becomes a symbol of machismo or “coolness” among young adults. And after a long period of lighting up, it becomes a routine. As a fact, humans are creatures of habit. By some force of habit, smokers find themselves reaching for a cigarette and lighting it up automatically without thinking about it.
Certain “triggers” in the environment may also hamper a smoker’s desire to quit. Things may turn on a smoker’s need for a cigarette. These may be feelings, places, and moods. Even the things done routinely may trigger this craving for a smoke.
Smokers must understand that quitting smoking may take more than one attempt. They must also try several methods before they can finally succeed. Even so, with enough determination, willpower, and a strategy, it is possible to quit smoking and kick this habit for good.