Why Smoking Is so Hard to Quit, and What You Can Do About It

Girl blowing smoke

We already know that smoking cigarettes is incredibly detrimental to your health as well as highly addictive; many former smokers say quitting was the hardest thing they’ve ever done. But what exactly about those tiny little rolls of tobacco, and the act of smoking them, keeps smokers bound to their habits with such incredible strength?

The American Lung Association describes the different components of smoking addiction as parts of a three-link chain: physical, mental, and social. These three different factors act together in maintaining a hold over the smoker and encouraging continued cigarette use.

Physically: The nicotine present in all tobacco products (not just cigarettes) causes smokers to feel a surge in dopamine, one of the feel-good goos in our brain, whenever they smoke a cigarette. As soon as that dopamine wears off, the smoker gets a craving for more, and so another cigarette satisfies the craving – but only momentarily. Smokers build up a tolerance to as well as physical dependence on nicotine, so that as time goes on they need more of it to reach the same dopamine levels as before. This leads to an increase in the number of cigarettes smoked in an average amount of time, which continues to intensify the cravings and dependence while just trying to reach the same point of satisfaction.

Mentally: The act of smoking becomes part of a daily routine quickly. Smokers have a tendency to light up at the same time every day, like when they grab a coffee or during their morning commute. They also might yearn for a smoke when they’re feeling bad, like stressed out from work or tired from a long night. Addiction is much more than a bad habit, but habitualized actions are part of addiction.

Socially: Many smokers start out as social smokers, or people who smoke in a social setting to break the ice (“Do you have a light?”) or as an excuse to partake in a certain event, like sneaking a break from work. Likening smoking to a social activity encourages the feel-good parts of the brain to feel even better, making quitting even less appealing.

The ALA believes that the key to beating a smoking addiction is to tackle all three parts of the chain. For the physical effects, there are seven FDA-approved medications that can help smokers quit and help with withdrawal symptoms. Mentally, the smoker should learn to identify moments throughout their daily lives that will trigger a cigarette craving, so that they can be prepared to deal with them by adjusting behaviors or even avoid triggering moments altogether. The social aspect of smoking can also be used to curb the addiction; quitters should join groups of like-minded non-smokers who will support their decision rather than tempt or tease them.

Of course we already know the easiest way to avoid developing a smoking addiction: don’t start.