25% of adults continue to smoke, about 70% of them want to quit. In one study, of the
women smokers who said they wanted to stop smoking, 80% of them were unable to. Nicotine
is a psychoactive drug, and some researchers feel it is as addictive as heroin; in fact,
nicotine has actions similar to cocaine and heroin in the same area of the brain.
Depending on the amount taken in, nicotine can
act as either a stimulant or a sedative. Most smokers have a special fondness for the
first cigarette of the day because of the way brain cells respond to the day's first
nicotine rush. Rat studies show that nicotine increases the activity of dopamine, a
chemical in the brain that elicits pleasurable sensations -- a feeling similar to
achieving a reward. The first nicotine intake of the day is particularly effective in
enhancing the activity of dopamine-sensitive neurons. During the day, however, the nerve
cells become desensitized to nicotine; smoking becomes less pleasurable and smokers may be
likely to increase their intake to get their "reward". A smoker develops
tolerance to these effects very quickly and requires increasingly higher levels of
Withdrawal is a difficult process. Even after
years of nonsmoking, about 20% of ex-smokers still have occasional cravings for
cigarettes. A study in 1986 reported that 68% of all smokers wanted to quit, and in that
year a third of them tried seriously, but only 6% of all smokers succeeded. People who
keep trying, however, have a 50% chance of finally quitting, and in any case the attempts
to quit are never a waste of time, since the amount of smoking is reduced during these
Researchers have been trying to discover those
conditions or sets of behaviors that can help predict why so many people fail to quit.
From one study to the next, however, no consistent factors have emerged; these include
gender, number of cigarettes smoked, levels of nicotine in the blood, length of time
smoked, or the intensity or severity of withdrawal. A 1994 study, however, did find one
consistent predictor for failure to quit: almost anyone who cheated during the first two
weeks of withdrawal, even if they were wearing the patch, was smoking again in six months.
On the other hand, nearly half of the people who didn't cheat during the first two weeks
were still not smoking after sixth months.
A recent study indicates that smokers who quit
and start again may damage their lungs even more severely than people who have not yet
made an attempt to quit. Some experts suggest that those who relapse may have been at high
risk for poor lung function in the first place or that those who start smoking again are
more strongly addicted than other smokers and may inhale more deeply and hold the smoke in
their lungs longer. The message here is not that quitting smoking is more dangerous than
not quitting; the emphasis is on not starting again.
Copyright * 1998 Nidus Information Services,
Inc. Well-Connected Report: Smoking. September 1998. (Online)