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What doesn’t kill us, kills us slowly. So why do people smoke?

The World Health Organisation found that Tobacco kills 8 million people a year. In 2020, 22.3% of the global population used tobacco. Tobacco in all its forms is harmful but cigarette smoking is the most prevalent form of tobacco use worldwide. 


Nicotine is the main addictive substance in cigarettes and other forms of tobacco. It is a drug that occurs naturally in tobacco and is thought to be as addictive as heroin or cocaine.


It takes a mere 10 seconds to enter our body and hit the brain causing it to release adrenaline - that buzz of pleasure and energy. The buzz fades as quickly as it enters our system and when it does, one begins to crave more. Once that craving sets in, and one begins to smoke regularly, the intake of tobacco increases systematically because a small amount will stop providing the same ‘buzz’ it once did. So, you not only smoke regularly but you begin smoking more in a lesser amount of time. It is the most distinctive quality of addictive substances. The medical term for it is tolerance. 


The National Institute on Drug Abuse defined addiction ‘as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.’


How does nicotine affect the body? 


When someone lights a cigarette, nicotine and other chemicals in tobacco are easily absorbed into the blood through the lungs, and from there, throughout the body. Nicotine works much in the same way as addictive drugs. It floods the brain’s reward circuits with a chemical called dopamine. 


Over time, the body adapts to the nicotine and the user becomes uncomfortable without the feeling of dopamine which leads them to their next cigarette and the one after that. A reward cycle that essentially gaslights our brain into feeling calm and composed, while it destroys our body. A toxic relationship.


Who is getting addicted?


A study released in the National Library of Medicine found that apart from pharmacological factors, social, economic, personal, and political influences all play an integral part in determining patterns of smoking prevalence and discontinuation. 


According to the 2014 Surgeon General’s Report (SGR), nearly 9 out of 10 adults who smoke started before 18. Experimenting with smoking usually occurs in the early teenage years and is driven by several social and psychological factors. It has been found that within a year of smoking, children inhale the same amount of nicotine per cigarette as adults. 


It is fair to keep in mind that marketing campaigns and visual content also play a part in conditioning young minds. They usually portray smokers as independent and cool, sexy, fun, and living on the edge - images that appeal to many teens worldwide. And who doesn’t want to be living-on-the-edge at 15?


WHO found that over 80% of the world’s population, 1.3 billion tobacco users live in low and middle-income countries. Evidence has found that poorer smokers tend to have higher levels of nicotine intake and are substantially more dependent on it. 


It is inevitable then, that future progress in the reduction of smoking is going to have to tackle problems posed by poverty.


Why is it hard to quit? 


By age 20, 80% of cigarette smokers regret that they ever started but as a result of their nicotine addiction, many continue to smoke for a substantial proportion of their adult lives. 

Smokers typically report that smoking helps them calm down when they are stressed and helps them concentrate and work more effectively, but little evidence exists that nicotine provides self-medication for adverse mood states or for coping with stress.


Regular tobacco users can have withdrawal symptoms if and when they suddenly stop or greatly reduce their intake. Even though there is no danger of nicotine withdrawal, the symptoms can be uncomfortable. 

Withdrawal symptoms include dizziness, feelings of frustration or impatience, hunger, irritability, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, restlessness and boredom, tiredness, headaches, slower heart rate, chest tightness, and so on.


Withdrawal symptoms usually start within a few hours and peak 2 to 3 days later when most of the nicotine has left the body. It can last a few days or up to several weeks, but they get better every day that a person stays tobacco-free. Cravings, sometimes intense, can also persist for several months especially when triggered by situational cues. 


It is easy to fall back into the same routine just so these symptoms and the cravings stop but choosing not to revert to tobacco use is the only way for withdrawal symptoms never to return. Though difficult, it is the most proficient way through. 


Where to get help? 


If you are experiencing problems with stress and mood fluctuations, it is always a good idea to try meditation and yoga or counseling and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).


Most smokers have triggers that circle them back to the point where they want to light a cigarette. You must see and understand these triggers for yourself. Is there something else you could do instead of lighting a cigarette? 


Feeling anxious? Go for a walk. Feeling sleepy? Do some exercise. Want to relax? Take a bath. Feeling angry? Some mindful breathing might help. Hungry? Grab a Snickers. 


Countries like the United Kingdom provide a combination of prescription medicine and behavioral support from free local stop-smoking services. Though these services aren’t currently available in all areas of the UK, they offer a great chance of success for people looking to quit. 


The American Lung Association’s, Not-On-Tobacco (N-O-T) program is designed for 14 to 19-year-old smokers who want to quit. 


In 2018, India launched a National Tobacco Cessation Quitline (1800-22-77-87) to help people quit smoking. 


If you need help, there will be assistance provided to you by Local and National authorities and you can find them online with the click of a button. But the first step towards fighting addiction is acknowledging that you need help. 


And once that acknowledgement sets in, alongside the strong desire to stop contaminating your body, there is no way but out - out of the clutches of what holds you so tight that it makes it difficult to breathe.


Remember, you can do whatever you set your mind to. 

[Photo by Maria Remez on Unsplash]

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