Nicotine Addiction

Government statistics indicate about 50 million Americans have quit smoking in the last 30 years. This is largely due to the increased awareness of the health risks involved. It also has become an inconvenient habit, as cigarettes have been banned from offices, restaurants and airplanes. Yet another 48 million --25 percent of the adult population-- cannot or will not give up the habit. Each year, about 16 million people try to quit, but only 1.2 million keep off cigarettes permanently.

As scientists learn more about how nicotine affects the brain, they are gaining insights into why some people have a harder time quitting than others. Some emotional problems, such as low self-esteem, depression or anxiety disorders, seem to predispose people to nicotine addiction. New genetics research, moreover, is revealing that some people are born more vulnerable to nicotine's lure than others.

Nicotine affects the chemicals in our bodies that are associated with pleasure, energy, alertness and pain relief. Some smokers, suffering from depression or anxiety, may light up because they experience improvement in these feelings. These smokers may be the persons genetically vulnerable to nicotine addiction. While smokers may start the smoking habit for positive effects on a mood, withdrawal symptoms make it difficult to quit.

How Nicotine Hooks You

When a smoker takes a puff, nicotine is quickly absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream, which distributes it throughout the body. In as little as 10 or 20 seconds, nicotine reaches the brain.

In the brain, nicotine stimulates receptor cells in the "reward center." This causes nerve cells to release a brain chemical associated with pleasure.

At the same time, other brain chemicals associated with alertness, energy, depression, appetite and pain relief also are affected.

In a few hours, the levels of these brain chemicals decline as the body rids itself of nicotine. Withdrawal symptoms kick in (anxiety, irritability and inattentiveness) prompting the smoker to light up another cigarette.

Researchers suspect that over time, the brain becomes accustomed to operating with a certain level of nicotine and eventually depends on nicotine to produce normal levels of these chemicals. Once nicotine is removed, levels decline below normal and precipitate the withdrawal syndrome. Although most of the focus of nicotine-addiction is directed at cigarette smoking, persons who give up cigarettes for cigars or chewing tobacco are simply using a different way to maintain the same addiction.

Treatment

The key to treatment is to identify the individual's specific reasons for smoking and get them actively involved in quitting. 

People will cite a variety of methods they have tried, including everything from hypnosis, behavior modification programs and aversion therapies of one sort or another. Most recently, antidepressant medications are being studied to see what role they may have in battling this problem. Ultimately, researchers hope a combination of medication and counseling will help more smokers quit.

If you or someone you know is interested in trying to quit smoking, call for help.