Smoking and Nicotine Addiction
Earthlings’ curious ritual
If you were a visitor from another planet you would soon notice that many of the human species engage in a curious ritual. They take a small white cylindrical object known as ‘a cigarette’ out of a packet, set fire to one end of it, put the other end into their mouth and suck the resultant smoke into their lungs. The smoke is then exhaled through the mouth, or the mouth and the nose, and the process repeated until ‘a cigarette’ is nearly burnt down. People doing this in public are seen to throw away the small remaining portion, known as ‘a butt’, onto the ground. Apparently, the ground around such humans specimens is known as ‘a public ashtray’. The ritual is repeated with a new item of ‘a cigarette’ some ten, twenty, or more times every day. The humans who do this are known as ‘smokers’.
Let us come down to earth.
Why do so many humans engage in smoking?
There are two ways of finding out.
One way is to consult learned papers in scholarly journals, or scholarly papers in learned journals, or the internet. There we discover reasons of the following kind: smoking ‘triggers’ or cues such as after a meal or with a coffee, hand-to-mouth gestures conditioned by ‘muscle memory’, the ‘changed brain’ from long-continued smoking, the satisfaction or relaxation that smoking produces, the feeling of being enlivened and stimulated, the pleasure or enjoyment that smoking creates, the experience of visions of heaven, and the abolition of unhappiness. And, of course, nicotine addiction.
The other way is to ask smokers why they smoke. I have done this with hundreds of smokers: their answers are always the same or similar. It will then become clear that all the above-mentioned reasons, except the last one, are of marginal, if any, importance. On the other hand, the obvious, overriding—and, for the practical purpose of helping smokers quit—the only reason smokers smoke is, indeed, nicotine addiction.
One manifestation of the addiction is that smokers feel a strong desire to smoke frequently throughout the day wherever they happen to be or whatever the circumstances. When this urge comes upon them they want to do it now. Of course, they can and do defer having another cigarette if they’re in a situation where smoking is not allowed, such as on a plane, in a church or concert hall, or other non-smoking environment. They can put off the need to relieve the urge to smoke, but it often is at the expense of increasing irritability. Or, if smokers realise they have left home without a supply of cigarettes, they can even get in a panic.
The problem is compounded by the fact that some doctors and researchers put about the idea that because nicotine apparently stimulates the release of dopamine and activates the pleasure centre of the brain, this is a large part of the reason, they would have us believe, that smoking is so hard to quit.
Incidentally, the nicotine-dopamine hypothesis is derived from animal experiments of unknown relevance to humans. It is impossible at present to measure the level of dopamine or any other neurochemical in the living human brain. But the nicotine-dopamine-pleasure hypothesis is not only irrelevant but a hindrance in the practical business of helping smokers quit.
It’s like saying to smokers: you poor person, you’re addicted to the dopamine rush, the nicotine hit, and this orgasmic pleasure you experience every time you suck poisonous tobacco fumes into your lungs is why, at least in part, quitting is diabolically difficult! You will so badly miss the state of bliss that smoking induces that it’s perfectly understandable you would rather risk dying from a smoking-related disease than give up cigarettes and will feel, as Oscar Wilde poetically if inaccurately, put it:
You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?
Therefore, you will have to plan and prepare, set a ‘quit date’, work out how to deal with your smoking ‘triggers’, change your routine, give up coffee and avoid your smoking friends, build up your willpower and gird your loins to grin and bear the awful withdrawal symptoms that will likely assail you for weeks or months after ‘trying’ to stop poisoning yourself with tobacco smoke!
And further, since you will be so deprived if you give up smoking, you will need an alternative way of continuing your nicotine addiction, maybe for the rest of your life, so try e-cigarettes! They’re definitely less harmful than smoking, like 95 per cent less harmful, as proved by Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians!
‘Once a nicotine addict, always a nicotine addict.’ And what a handy excuse this is for all those poor permanently nicotine-addicted people who now have official sanction to continue ‘using’ nicotine as long as they like.
Emphasising the idea that smoking stimulates pleasurable dopamine release and this is why it is so hard to quit, does smokers a disservice. How many smokers are there who, after stubbing out a cigarette, exclaim, ‘By golly, that was marvellous! I must do it again—like twenty times a day.’?
And of course, Dr Symonds, don’t forget that nicotine of itself is no more harmful than coffee, no one has ever become addicted to pure nicotine no matter how hard they’ve tried, and nicotine is a potential treatment or prevention for Alzheimer’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease and is a cognitive enhancer (whatever that means) and anyone who says otherwise is a rotter.
I have been accused in this way by one or two commenters on Quora (an American question-and-answer website) where I have attempted to give helpful answers to questions people have posted about smoking, and of being disingenuous, and of belittling vaping, and of spamming because I have included links to some of my blogs and to this website.
In an exchange of views over one of my answers, a respondent expressed disbelief over my claim that quitting smoking can be easy when everyone else says it’s hard, and that I dare to disagree with the widely held view that vaping is a least 95 per cent safer than smoking.
This is the point: almost everything most people believe about smoking is wrong.
Text © Gabriel Symonds
The photo is of Oscar Wilde