Smoking as an addiction

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

Image of the blog post "Smoking as an addiction" on Tikvah Lake Recovery.

Smoking is legal and so widespread that it is all too easy to forget that it’s an extremely harmful and often fatal addiction. Many people’s lives would be so much better – and last longer – if they could quit smoking.

As with any addiction there are different levels. As some people are social drinkers so some are social smokers where a cigarette goes with a beer when out with friends or at some other similar social event.

But as with someone that starts as a social drinker who ends up drinking alcoholically so some social smokers end up addicted to cigarettes. As with many social drinkers it then goes from being a little bit of unhealthy but manageable fun to some degree of a problem.

One test around this is similar to one that is sometimes put to big drinkers to decide if they have crossed the line into alcoholism. No one is suggesting their big drinking is doing them any good, but could they completely stop straightaway if told by a doctor that they needed to quit for health reasons?

Similarly with a smoker, is it really just a social thing or is it an addiction now? Either way of course without a doubt it would benefit smokers and those around them if they did not smoke at all.

It has to be acknowledged that one of the battles with quitting smoking is that until just a few decades ago it was still seen as being somewhat “cool”. Movie stars smoked as part of their character, musicians posed with cigarettes in hand, people could smoke just about anywhere and even such as some sporting heroes were smokers.

But that’s changed now – no one on the planet cannot know that smoking is bad for you. 

That’s not to say though that once started it’s any easier to give up. Around 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit and yet only six percent of smokers completely quit the habit in any given year.

Why is smoking so addictive?

Most smokers use tobacco because they are addicted to the effects of nicotine. This is a toxic colorless or yellowish oily liquid that’s derived from the tobacco plant.

When inhaled, nicotine reaches the brain within seconds. It stimulates the nervous system to release chemical messengers that change the way a smoker feels.

It causes the release of the hormone dopamine that’s behind the “buzz” and feelings of relaxation. Adrenaline increases the heart rate.

But without nicotine, regular users swiftly become restless, irritable and anxious. So they crave more and what may have started as a couple of cigarettes in the evening can become a 40-a-day habit that dominates a person’s life.

It becomes their main relationship. This means that any other relationships – including a marriage – can suffer. 

This all clearly fits the definition of addiction, which is anything that’s detrimental to a person and/or anyone around them that the person cannot stop doing and stay stopped from doing.

Anything has the capacity for someone to become addicted to it if it gives a feeling of pleasure or if it distracts from or numbs negative feelings they may have. It could be to avoid emotions from a trauma, a difficult situation, anxiety or to avoid damaging flashbacks.

It is the dependency on it as an attempt to change the way someone feels that makes it an addiction. In fact this is why it becomes so addictive.

Smoking marijuana can be included here. Although the high of the marijuana might be what someone thinks they are after it will also frequently be the effect of smoking the tobacco that’s often mixed with it too.

The key to quitting and staying quit then is to look at and deal with the root causes. This needs expert help from someone who understands these matters as it most often involves looking back at life.

As addiction expert Dr Gabor Maté says: “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.”

What are the health benefits of quitting smoking?

One obvious and immediate benefit is to physical health. Any doctor will state how smoking is associated with not only cancers and heart disease but also with such as eye problems, fertility difficulties and skin issues.

Long-term smoking is associated with cognitive decline and risk of Alzheimer’s disease. But virtually any disease or illness would be less likely to happen (and remedy itself quicker) without a tobacco habit.

This is obvious when you consider that smoking puts poisons all around the bloodstream. That includes through all the major organs such as the heart and brain.

The American Lung Association warns that a burning cigarette creates more than 7,000 chemicals. Many are toxic and at least 69 are proven to cause cancer.

Many of these chemicals are also used in other products – but we are warned of their specific dangers then. These include such as:

  • Formaldehyde: in embalming fluid.
  • Arsenic: in rat poison.
  • Naphthalene: in mothballs.
  • Acetone: in nail polish remover.
  • Butane: in lighter fluid.
  • Nicotine: in insecticides.
  • Toluene: in paint thinners.
  • Ammonia: in household cleaning products.

Quitting smoking health benefits timeline

The entire human body benefits when someone quits smoking.

  • Within 20 minutes of the last cigarette blood pressure starts returning to normal levels.
  • Eight hours later oxygen levels start to increase to more normal levels.
  • Twenty-four hours later heart attack risk is lower because of reduced constriction of veins and arteries as well as increased oxygen levels to the heart.
  • Two weeks after, breathing and walking are easier due to improved circulation and oxygenation. Lung function will have increased by up to 30 percent.
  • One month after quitting risk of lung infection and sinus problems are markedly down.
  • Three months since the last cigarette will see a boost in fertility.
  • At six months any coughing caused by smoking should have considerably lessened or stopped.
  • In three years heart attack risk has decreased to that of a non-smoker.
  • Five years afterwards the risk of death from lung cancer is half of what it is for a smoker.
  • At ten years the risk of dying from lung cancer is that of a non-smoker. There’s also a markedly reduced risk for cancers of the pancreas, mouth, esophagus, bladder and kidneys.
  • Fifteen years after the last cigarette the risk of having a stroke is the same as a non-smoker.

What other benefits are there from stopping smoking?

Connected to physical benefits are that teeth and fingers will stop turning yellow. Add to that light-colored mustaches and the hair of heavy smokers.

There are social benefits too. This ranges from the fact that someone won’t have to leave social events to smoke somewhere. They won’t smell of smoke either.

This includes their breath as well as their clothes. Some heavy smokers will realize when they quit that they will start to get visitors to their homes again.

Work will benefit too as there will be less wasted hours smoking, including walking five minutes to reach the permitted smoking places. But as well because smoking stops oxygen getting around the body, when quitting there will be increased energy levels.

There will also be obvious financial benefits. Not only will earning potential be boosted, there’s the money saved from buying cigarettes. 

There are also considerable psychological benefits too. As with beating any addiction there is a feeling of achievement, a sense of freedom and a massive relief that there’s no longer a dependence on something.

Whether a person is in full denial or wholly accepting that they need help for any addiction it is always beneficial to speak with a professional about it. Although often seen as a “lesser” drug than such as the illegal drugs like cocaine it can in fact be more difficult to stop smoking tobacco.

Withdrawals and after-effects can be very hard to deal with alone. But that should not put anyone off because the benefits are immense to the person and those around them.

Our experienced team can help you or someone you care about to stop and stay stopped from any addiction, including smoking. Time away from normal anxieties, temptations and daily pressures is vital – people making it to a week without a cigarette are nine times as likely to successfully quit.

Our luxury house besides a beautiful tranquil lake has been especially prepared so that it’s the perfect place for relaxing in comfort. We’re also fortunate to be surrounded by stunning nature.

Contact us for a fully confidential conversation to see what treatments we can offer to help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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