We have all heard the horror stories about smoking, and even smokers are familiar with the facts about the health dangers of the habit. It’s hard to believe that people still choose to smoke despite all the evidence that indicts smoking as a calculated killer. In this article, I would like to give an overview of the mechanics and consequences of nicotine addiction, but I also want to encourage any of you smokers out there with some of the benefits of stopping and present some practical, safe, and natural ways to help those of you who want to quit.
What is Smoking Dependency?
Smoking dependency should more accurately be called “nicotine dependency,” because nicotine is the main addictive drug that is found in all tobacco products. As we will see, a person can become dependent on smokeless tobacco products like chewing tobacco or snuff just as easily as he or she can to tobacco products that are smoked, like cigarettes, pipes, or cigars. Smoking only makes matters worse by introducing even more toxic chemicals into the body through the means of delivery—smoke.
The habit of smoking tobacco has been around for thousands of years. When mass media such as movies, television, and magazines became available to Madison Avenue, the tobacco (mainly cigarette) companies rose to meet the challenge, and the percentage of people who smoked exploded. That has since declined since the discoveries in the 1950’s and 60’s that clearly linked smoking to deadly conditions such as heart disease and cancer, but even today, millions of Americans are still smoking. Recent studies have indicated that the highest percentage of new smokers are teenage girls.
Despite the drop in the number of smokers, smoking is still the number one preventable cause of death in the United States. Over 400,000 Americans die every year from direct or indirect consequences of smoking. Lifelong male smokers knock an average of 13 years off their lives, and it’s even higher for women smokers—14 ½ years. The majority of smokers want to quit (surveys say up to 80%), but it is not easy, and most fail despite repeated attempts. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, both physically and psychologically, and many experts say it is harder to get off of than cocaine or heroin. But, many do eventually succeed, and the rewards are priceless.
How Does Nicotine Dependency Work?
Nicotine is a funny drug. Sometimes it can act as a stimulant, and at times like a depressant with a tranquilizing effect. That’s why smokers often claim that lighting up will energize them physically and mentally, while at other times it helps them to calm down and relax. Nicotine is a very fast-acting drug. When a person takes a puff on a cigarette, the nicotine is absorbed by the lungs, pumped into the bloodstream, and within 10 seconds reaches the brain. Within 20 seconds the nicotine has been dispersed throughout the entire body. Nicotine stimulates the adrenal gland to release a substance called epinephrineinto the circulatory system, which in turn causes the blood pressure to rise, the fat levels in the blood to increase, the arteries to narrow, and the heart rate to increase. Nicotine also stimulates the brain to release a mood-elevating compound called dopamine, which is a key element involved in the addiction process. In a nutshell, addiction is repeating an action that brings pleasure, despite negative consequences. Nicotine addiction fits the bill, and in fact nicotine is one of the most oft used and abused drugs in the world.
In addition to being physically addictive, nicotine is also a psychological habit that is hard to quit. Many smokers have programmed themselves to associate certain behaviors at certain times of the day with a cigarette, and these mental and emotional habits can be even harder to break and more long-lived than the physical aspects of the addiction. Indeed, science has proven that all the nicotine is out of your system within the first three days, so if you pick it back up after that time frame, it is because you thought you had to, not due to any physical craving.
How Dangerous is Smoking?
We’ve all heard the statistics: smoking is terrible for your health. But let’s list a few brief bullets detailing just how damaging smoking is, and on the other hand, how good it can be for you if you quit:
THE BAD NEWS
- Most people who get lung cancer, get it from smoking. Lung cancer has one of the highest death rates of any cancer.
- Heavy smokers have up to five times the incidence of heart disease than that of non-smokers. Even casual smoking dramatically increases your chances for coronary disease.
- You have a much greater chance of dying from a heart attack or stroke if you smoke, than if you don’t.
- Smoking is a major contributor to many different types of cancer—too many to list. Even leukemia can be triggered by smoking.
- Smoking has been linked to infertility in women and impotence in men. It is also responsible for many miscarriages and premature births, and brain-damaged children if the mother smoked during pregnancy.
- There is no such thing as a “safe” cigarette. “Low-tar” brands are advertised in a very misleading way. They can actually be more dangerous, because smokers tend to smoke more and inhale more deeply when smoking “low-tar.” If you have ever tried to smoke one of those cigarettes with the holes in the filter, you know what I mean.
- Second-hand smoke may be even more dangerous than smoking. The lungs actually act as a filter, to some degree, when a smoker inhales. But the smoke that comes off the end of a cigarette (“sidestream” smoke) is not filtered in any way, and actually contains more toxins than what ends up in a smoker’s bloodstream. Recent studies have also implicated second-hand smoke as one of the primary causes of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
- Tobacco smoke exposes you to over 4000 different chemicals of which 200+ are known toxins, and 60+ are known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).
- The cost of smoking to the United States economy alone is in the billions of dollars, due to health care expenses and lost time from work for smokers.
THE GOOD NEWS
- Quitting smoking has some very quick, as well as long term, positive results:
- 20 minutes after your last cigarette, your heart rate decreases.
- 12 hours after you stop, the carbon monoxide levels in your blood are normal
- 2 weeks-3 months after stopping, your circulation and lung function begin to drastically improve.
- 1 year later, your risk for heart disease is cut in half.
- 15 years later, your risk for stroke is just the same as if you never smoked.
- If you quit by age 35, you’ll miss about 90% of the potential health risks of smoking. If you stop before 50, you are twice as likely to reach your 65th birthday.
- We have already discussed some numbers regarding how smoking affects the quantity or length of your life. But what about the quality of life? Here’s one example: Stopping smoking will bring back the sense of taste and smell that you have sacrificed on the altar of tobacco. Life is much more enjoyable when you can take in every aspect of it with all of your senses.
- How expensive is smoking to you personally? Have you ever added it up? Let’s crunch some numbers: $5.00 per day (1 pack per day), $35.00 per week, $140.00 per month, over $1800.00 per year…let’s see, if you smoked for 20 years, that would be…$36,500. A nice down payment on a house…a college education…?? Seeing it on paper really brings it home. Add it up! Reward yourself once in a while by spending some of your ex-smoking money on a treat.
- The above figures do not include indirect costs associated with smoking, such as increased premiums for health, life, and homeowners insurance. What about employment? Some firms are now screening potential employees and refuse to hire smokers due to increased costs. Quit the habit, and you will have many reasons to be grateful.
- Not only will you feel better, but there’s a good chance you’ll look better too. Smoking causes your skin to dry out so that you age faster and get more wrinkles.
- Nothing is better for your self-confidence than to tackle a challenge (quitting smoking) that is extremely difficult and come out a victor. Quitting can help you to become all that you can be in every area of your life.
What Treatments Are Available for Nicotine Dependency (or, How Can I Stop!) ?
Just as tobacco sales is a multi-billion dollar business, quitting smoking has also spawned a huge industry of its own. There are more products than you can shake a stick at out there to help you become an ex-smoker. Many of them are nicotine-based products, and it is better if you can avoid these. However, do whatever you have to in order to successfully quit. Continuing to smoke is much more of a hazard than certain smoking cessation products.
Big Pharma is even in the process of attempting to get a nicotine vaccine approved (no surprise there). It is supposed to create antibodies that will attack nicotine as it enters the bloodstream. Sounds pretty scary to me. I for one do not want to artificially alter the way my immune system works. The longterm effects could be staggering.
The best treatment is prevention. Here are a few tips to help you quit or stay free from smoking:
- Learn to deal with stress in constructive and positive ways in your life. Methods can include exercise, deep breathing, prayer, or a hot bath to help you relax. You have to have an alternative plan when you would normally reach for that next cigarette.
- Don’t be a lone ranger. When you decide to quit, tell at least one other person to whom you can be accountable. Pick up the phone and call them when you are tempted to light up. It really helps to have at least one other person pulling for you.
- Remember what your “why” is. When tackling any big goal, it always helps to constantly remind yourself what the rewards are for success, as well as what the consequences are for failure.