What Makes Quitting Really Hard?

By Sharon Moore on October 22, 2012

Wanting to quit? Studies suggest that it takes almost five years and seven attempts for an average smoker to give up this dangerous habit. No person has ever started smoking just to get addicted. Some light up because they want to be “cool” while others simply want to give it a try. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the smoker’s population is able to kick off the bad habit out of their lives in a snap. The big question is – WHY?

First of all, let us clear one very popular myth about cigarettes. Contrary to what many people believe, smoking is not a habit. It’s an addiction! And just like any other forms of addiction, smoking cessation comes along with undesirable symptoms of withdrawal. Research has shown that when people are attempting to quit, their brains tend to react poorly to stimuli that do not have any association with nicotine or smoking. These stimuli become less attractive to the brain so the smoker doesn’t give much importance to them. However, when the brain senses nicotine, it easily responds. And when a stimulus predicts getting a hit, the smokers brain pays high attention to it to get the smoker do anything necessary to get a little of that addictive chemical. This happens with any other addictive drug. So there’s always a tendency for a relapse during the entire cessation period, even after years of not smoking!

Nicotine, a highly addictive substance mainly found in tobacco products, reaches the brain within minutes that its mood-enhancing effect is immediately felt. When a person inhales nicotine, there is a sudden surge of dopamine in the brain (a hormone linked to pleasure). Nicotine also boosts the production of endorphins – chemicals in the brain that make a person feel euphoric.  But as it easily gets in, the effects of nicotine disappears so quickly. To experience that same feeling again, the smoker lights up another stick. And smoking goes on.

The nicotine that’s naturally found in tobacco plant is enough to induce people to smoke more. But tobacco manufacturers aren’t satisfied with how addicted smokers were so they made nicotine potency stronger by adding sugar, forming a chemical compound called acetaldehyde when cigarette is burned. In an animal study, researchers found that rodents will repeatedly take shots of acetaldehyde as much as they would take a shot of nicotine.

Another reason why it’s hard to quit smoking is that most cigarettes today contain free-base nicotine – a variation of nicotine in which hydrogen ion is missing. So what of it lacks hydrogen? Without this substance, nicotine easily vaporises, reaching the brain in a lot quicker manner.

There’s no wonder why two-thirds of adult smokers who wish to stop smoking aren’t able to. Even those who had been to surgery for lung cancer still manage to smoke a pack a day. Just one cigarette contains 2mg of nicotine and an average one-pack-day smoker inhales 250 doses of nicotine every day.

But even though quitting smoking is hard, it is not impossible. For the past years, there has been a decline in the number of deaths due to smoking – thanks to the advancement in technology and to massive campaigns about the ill effects of smoking. Today, there are many smoking cessation methods available, the most popular treatments being nicotine replacement therapy and medication.

However, counselling and other forms of psychotherapy are becoming very much popular these days among smokers wishing to quit. These treatments do not involve taking drugs that may have harmful side effects. Rather, they are focused on helping patients deal with the withdrawal symptoms in a more effective way. Quitting without help is hard especially during the first few weeks of smoking cessation (when relapse usually takes place). These therapies help smokers focus on the cognitive interference and associated cues on nicotine to reduce the likelihood of relapse and increase chance of quitting for good. Furthermore, there are government-funded health services offered to smokers who want to quit but don’t have enough resources to access treatments.

With professional help, quitting smoking is not just possible but quick and easy as well.


Source of this article:

Jane Powell, Lynne Dawkins, Robert West, John Powell and Alan Pickering (2010). Relapse to smoking during unaided cessation: clinical, cognitive and motivational predictors, Psychopharmacology.



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