The Science of Smoking Addictions

young woman smoking cigaretteEvery week, myriad facts and figures are trotted out warning of the hazards and dangers of smoking, but did you know that a World Health Organisation study revealed cigarettes killed more people in the 20th century than World War I and II COMBINED?

A shocking statistic, for sure, and one that puts into perspective how succumbing to the addiction of nicotine has cost millions of people their lives.

But why do people start smoking? What creates the cycle of addiction? Why is nicotine so addictive? And what can you do kick the habit and quit? Here are some answers…

Starting young:
that first, fateful puff

Research has shown that the majority of people begin smoking when they’re in their teens, and usually before they’ve turned 18. Most smokers have tried their first cigarette around the age of 11, with many having already become addicted by the time they hit 14.

Many people start smoking because their parents smoke, while peer pressure from friends coerces others into sampling their first puff. Also, cigarettes are often synonymous with independence and rebellion. Another common mind-set is the ‘everyone else does, so why shouldn’t I?’ attitude.

How do smoking addictions happen?

Nicotine is a very powerful drug and a stimulant that travels quickly to the brain when inhaled. This in turn causes temporary feelings of stress relief and relaxation. Nicotine also boosts heart rate, elevates your mood (giving you that brief, euphoric high), and releases dopamine, which creates feelings of comfort and pleasure.

Another significant reason it can be difficult to stop smoking is because the more you smoke, the more your brain cells create nicotine receptors, constantly craving a regular intake of nicotine. Smoking consequently becomes a regular part of your daily routine and habits.

Behavioural and pharmacological characteristics in smokers are also similar to people addicted to heroin and cocaine – the quick fix of the nicotine hitting the smoker’s brain in a matter of seconds.

The cycle of addictiashtrayon

When you inhale cigarette smoke, the nicotine goes deep into the lungs and then into the bloodstream, where it’s carried to the heart and the brain. This is a process that only takes six seconds.

Smoking therefore delivers a ‘hit’ that’s almost instantaneous and a lot faster than an injection with a needle.

Nicotine is a stimulant and speeds things up, making the smoker feel more alert and awake, as well as making the heart beat faster and increasing blood pressure.

It takes approximately 45 minutes for this surging level of nicotine in the blood to go down, at which point withdrawal symptoms start to kick in.

The number of cigarettes a smoker needs per day has to increase exponentially to maintain a certain level of dependency and prevent any withdrawal symptoms – they have to maintain a certain level of nicotine in their blood. In fact, most smokers will light up another cigarette before they start to feel any withdrawal symptoms.

After sleep, the nicotine level in the blood is lower than it is during the day. This is why heavy smokers usually have a cigarette not long after waking up. (It’s also a pretty good way of determining how addicted to smoking you are.)

Why is it hard to stop smoking?

stop smoking

It’s not easy to wean yourself off of what can often be the result of years of nicotine-based addiction as it affects your brain and body in a very powerful way. It can act as a stimulant to get you going in the morning, make you feel calmer and more focussed, and also make you feel happier.

Nicotine is just as addictive as cocaine or heroin, and once your body has become addicted to smoking and the addictive properties of nicotine, it’s not easy to stop. The mind and the body continually crave it and it becomes part of your daily life; in other words, it makes you feel normal.  A person is usually addicted to smoking if they smoke more than five cigarettes a day.

Common symptoms of quitting smoking

As with any addiction that has become a regular part of your daily life, quitting, going cold turkey, remaining abstinent – whatever you choose to call it – can lead to a number of physiological and mood responses.

Some of the most common symptoms of quitting smoking are impatience, irritability, anxiety, hostility, depression, difficulty concentrating, decreased heart rate, restlessness, and increased appetite or weight gain.

Why is smoking so bad?

why smoking is so badNicotine causes a short-term increase in blood pressure, heart rate and blood flow to the heart, as well as causing a narrowing of the arteries. Smoke also contains carbon monoxide, which reduces the amount of oxygen the blood can carry. Carbon monoxide can also damage the inner walls of the arteries, creating fatty build-ups and vessels which harden over time. Smoking also creates changes in the blood that makes you more susceptible to nasty blood clots.

And contrary to popular belief, research has shown that smoking can damage the body within minutes rather than years.

The long-term harm from smoking-related illnesses can increase your risk of diseases such as heart attack, stroke, emphysema, cancer, ulcers and tooth decay.

There have also been doubts raised over the effectiveness of E-cigarettes, with some experts concluding that, while they may give smokers a hit of nicotine without the tar from tobacco smoke, E-cigarettes pump other equally harmful chemicals into your body.

The psychology behind smoking addictions

Smoking is both a psychological and physical addiction, and often acts as a way of perpetuating certain daily rituals and activities.

For example, some of the most common reasons people cite for smoking are:

  • It’s a reward for doing something well or achieving something
  • It’s a way of socialising with other people and friends, and therefore a way of preventing you from feeling lonely
  • It can boost your confidence
  • It satisfies some kind of oral fixation and gives you something to do with your hands
  • It acts as a companion to alcohol or coffee, or gives you something to do after a meal

Another reason smokers give for continuing to smoke is that – despite all the warnings and health dangers – they quite simply enjoy it.

How do I break the habit?

quit smoking

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Breaking the habit of smoking can be extremely difficult and requires effort, hard work, stamina and determination to quit. However, with the right mental attitude and physical application, it can be done. Here are few things you can do and incorporate into your daily lifestyle to break the smoking habit.


Physical activity releases chemicals in your body that help relieve stress and improve your mood. Walking an average of 30 minutes every day can act as a very good distraction to reaching for another cigarette, as well as helping your heart and burning off extra calories.


Most people light up a cigarette when they’re feeling stressed, which makes the muscles tense. The best way to relax muscles is deep breathing, stretching or yoga. Even closing your eyes and visualising yourself in a calmer, more peaceful place can psychologically make you calmer.

Call a friend

Anyone going through some form of addiction recovery will need a strong and reliable network of friends and family. As the old maxim goes,  a problem halved is a problem shared, so talking through your experiences, emotions and feelings will give you both security and positive reinforcement.

Look after your body

Getting more sleep, drinking plenty of water and eating healthily are fantastic ways to keep you feeling energized and more able to cope with the stresses of daily life.

Take a deep breath

Taking five to ten deep breaths is an effective way of combating stress. It’s also a good way of getting fresh, clean air as opposed to a lung full of tobacco smoke and its toxic chemicals.

Cut back on caffeine

Coffee and cigarettes are often perfect bedfellows, but caffeine is a stimulant that increases your anxiety and heart rate, making you tense and keeping you up at night.

How soon will my body be back to normal?

It’s easy to become addicted to smoking, but not quite so easy to give it up. Kicking the habit, however, is one of best steps you can take to improving your health, with it also resulting in whiter teeth, improved fertility, better breathing, and a longer life.

You can explore how quickly you’ll feel the benefits after you’ve stopped smoking here.