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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