Why is Smoking Addictive?

“I finally overcame my will power and started smoking again.” – Mark Twain

There’s no better way to start an article than to quote a long-dead writer with a moustache; especially when he (or she – women can have moustaches too) makes a good point in an ironic way.  In this case, the point is that once you’ve started smoking, it’s tough to stop.  I know that first hand; I was a smoker for many years.  Right from the beginning though, I knew it was bad for me and that I’d eventually stop.  And eventually I did, on roughly the 378th attempt.

It’s not that it’s just great fun, like going to the cinema – smoking is chemically addictive.  It has an effect on the brain that makes you want to keep doing it.  Despite the negative health effects being pretty well known by now, smokers seem to either disagree that smoking is harmful, or come up with interesting justifications for smoking.

And for a smoker seeking to rationalise their behaviour, there’s plenty of material:  “Some people smoke all their lives and don’t get sick.”  “You could get hit by a bus tomorrow.”  “It looks cool.”  And of course, “I can quit any time I want!” But why do people get addicted to cigarettes, and not, say, apples?

This is your brain on apples

We have a reward mechanism in our brain, which is designed to help us survive by getting us to repeat actions that are beneficial for us.  All mammals have this.  It fires up when we eat, have sex, socialise; when we do anything that we like doing.  The fuel that this system runs on is called dopamine.  Some people call it the pleasure chemical, but maybe it’s more accurate to call it the reward chemical.

Why do people become addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine?  It’s because these drugs ‘hack into’ this reward system, and cause dopamine to be released in large amounts.  Nothing is necessarily happening to you that your brain would recognise as a beneficial thing; the drugs just get in there and activate the reward system at the same time you are taking them.

When I say ‘at the same time’, that really depends on how quickly the drug gets into your brain and triggers the dopamine release.  The quicker this happens (and the bigger the release, of course), the more addictive the drug is.  This is because the dopamine release will coincide more closely with the physical act of taking the drug.  Smoking is about the quickest method you can get.  The chemicals get to your brain quicker than if you had injected them.

So, you take a drag of a cigarette.  The reward system quickly activates.  Your brain goes “Ah, dopamine, what I am doing is beneficial, I’ll make sure to do this again!” at the same time as you’re smoking.  Then you take another drag, “Ah, dopamine, this is beneficial…” etc., 30 or so times in the space of a few minutes.  The reward system is getting triggered quickly and repeatedly, and being linked to what you are doing at the time: smoking.  This is why it’s so addictive.

Ever get a craving while stood at a bus stop?  Waiting for a train?  While drinking alcohol?  Same thing.  If you tend to smoke at a certain time – say you have a cigarette with your morning coffee – then over time smoking gets associated with that situation: if you drink a coffee on a morning, you’ll get a craving for a cigarette.  After you quit, and expose yourself to this situation repeatedly without smoking, the association weakens, along with the craving.

This is why the old tactic of leaving empty cigarette packets around to give you the illusion that you are stocked up is bass-ackwards; it only serves as a trigger for a craving.  There was an anti-drug campaign a few years ago here in the UK, posters were found all over that displayed pictures of various drug paraphernalia, in a sort of “don’t use these nasty things” sort of way.  This was doomed to failure for the same reason.

You can’t really blame anyone for being addicted to smoking.  This reward system is there to help us survive, not to be hacked into.  We don’t have Norton Anti-Addiction installed in our brains, which runs automatically once a week (and slows down everything else we are doing at the time).  If these pathways are activated, the brain has no idea there’s anything unnatural going on, so naturally we come up with rationalisations to explain the behaviour – some people don’t die from smoking, I could quit if I wanted, etc.

There’s not only this reinforcing effect, chemically rewarding us for smoking, but there’s also the experience of withdrawal to deal with too.  We’ll look at that next time.

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  • still smokin' says:

    “you can’t really blame anyone for being addicted to smoking.” i believe that’s bullsh*t. a smoker/drinker/drug user never had to pick up that very first cigarette/cocktail/pill. accept responsibility for your faults/flaws/addictions. then it will be easier to overcome them.

    i’m still addicted..and it’s my own fault for ever starting. no one elses.

  • Warren Davies says:

    You’re right there. I should have said, it’s a person’s own fault for starting in the first place, but it’s understandable that it’s difficult to stop.

  • Alice Banks says:

    I truely believe that there is an addictive link that some people have and others do not.
    My observations on addictions will give you an idea why I believe this.

    I have been in close relationships with people who smoke and drink. My parents smoked 2 packs each a day and my father was an alcoholic. My sister and I detested smoking and my father actually got treatment for alcohol addiction and did not drink again. He died 11 years later from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. This is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

    To make a point, both my sister and myself would become very ill, migraines, etc. when we encountered smoky environments. My father was addicted to both smoking and alcohol. But years later, when my sister’s husband told my mother she could not live with them because she smoked cigarettes continuously; she threw her pack of cigarettes in the trash and never smoked again. No withdrawal. No “addition”. My father, however, struggled with withdrawal from the alcohol and then when the Lou Gehrig’s disease became severe, he suffered withdrawal from the inability to smoke. Addiction is confused with abuse.

    My father was addicted and my mother was an abuser of smoking. I have read that people, who are addicted to one thing, generally are addicted to other “vices”. I have been a migraine sufferer since I was 11 years old. My mother, sister and my daughter also suffer. For 30 years I had to go to the hospital every time I got a migraine because they would not go away on their own. I took large doses of morphine and other “addictive” pain killers. I never once had withdrawal. I never once “had to have a shot” when I was not in a serious migraine.

    Once I had a migraine for 32 days. I went to the hospital three times for morphine. Finally the migraine went away. To this day, I have no addictions to pain killers. My husband died when I was 25 years old. I was a mother of two, a son two and a half and a daughter 7 months old. (I admit I was not very stable.) I started smoking 2 packs a day and did so for 6 months. I was driving down the road and I looked at the cigarette and “woke up”. I threw the pack away. Never had withdrawal and did not go back to smoking. (I am 60 now.)

    I believe that there is a chemical difference between “addiction” and “abuse” of a substance. I have not had morphine in years, because Imitrex was invented. I was actually one of the test subjects because I was so prone to migraines my pharmacist gave my name to the drug company. (They were working on a pill. Did not work for me, because I would get so sick, my stomach would shut down and the pill never got into my system. I wrote them a letter and suggested developing a shot. Thank God they did. I use it to this day. The Imitrex is non-narcotic and is a life saver for me. In 15 to 20 minutes my migraines are gone.

    Now, the same developer of this drug manufactures the generic called Sumatriptan Succinate Injection. The pills work for people who do not have violent migraines (throwing up, falling down, and not being able to move because of the pain, as was my case.) Thank you Sandoz! You literally saved my life!

    Now I do not advocate that I cannot get addicted to something. But smoking and pain killers are not on that list. I think that concentration on studies to determine the differences in additive types and non-addictive types should focus on body chemistry instead of psychology. (Don’t get me wrong. I love psychology and have 32 hours in credits, along with many books I have read. I just believe that too many “authorities” have been barking up the wrong tree.

    • Warren Davies says:


      I definitely think that there are some personality types, environments and circumstances that make addictions more or less likely to develop. When I was smoking I had phases were I just stopped for a few weeks, without any cravings. I never could figure out why that was. But it’s an interesting question about whether it’s psychology or brain chemistry. Your mother, for instance, while she did seem to have a ‘psychological’ reason for quitting, did not experience withdrawal. Is this correct? No cravings, irritability, anything like this? It’s also interesting that you seem to have inherited this, which as you say suggests more of a brain chemistry explanation that an environmental one.

      I’m curious, do you have good self-control in general? Could you stick easily to a diet plan or workout regime, if you were required to do so? I think you’re the exception that proves the rule.

      By the way your spelling is impeccable as far as I can see. 🙂

      Thanks once again for your thoughtful reply.

  • Richard says:

    As a smoker I am finding that I am addicted to the act of smoking as much as I am the smoke itself. I crave picking something up, putting it in my mouth, stomping it out. I need to have something to do with my hands and I find myself using cigarettes as “thinking” aids.

    I am hoping that the newest product out will help me with this. They are called vaporizers, have you heard of them? I am going to try them and even wrote a post about them. if you are as addicted to the act of smoking as I am they my help.

    I have also started a simple program to help save other lives by helping buy and distribute vaporizers to other smokers that need or want to quit. People on oxygen that still smoke are d-a-n-g-e-r-o-u-s and vaporizers can stop or at least greatly reduce people blowing themselves up while on oxygen.
    .-= Richard´s last blog ..Save Your Life, Then Save Another Life… =-.

  • jake says:

    @Richard… i’ve tried a couple of the ecigs out there they are ok but not the real thing

  • Lori says:

    I think that there has to be some sort of psychological reason as to why someone becomes addicted to something, regardless of the chemicals involved. Something happens that the person feels compelled to continue with the habit.

  • Mourice says:

    Aside from the obvious chemical effects that smoking does, I believe that it’s difficult to quit also because it’s habitual, and sometimes it can be a form of socialization. There were a number of parties that I went to in my college years where someone would be out on the patio with a cigarette and I’d join them and start a fun conversation. I also use it as an excuse to get outside and have a walk. Counter productive, I know.

  • Emma says:

    Smoking is addictive, but I can see the argument on both lines – and I’m not a smoker, never have been.

    I can see why health professionals say it’s dangerous to our health because it does cause illnesses and diseases. Then I can see why smokers smoke, many of them like it and in some regards it is true what they say ” some people do smoke for years and leave until their 100″.

    For me though, it wouldn’t be the dread of it eventually killing me, because we all have to die of something but it would be the lifetime of coughs and ill health that would get me.

    My mum has tried though e-cigarettes but because they don’t feel real she gives up on them.

    Thanks for creating this interesting read. 🙂

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