Giving up smoking

Nicotine, dependence and cravings

Nicotine is a stimulant drug – from the lungs it reaches the brain in about seven seconds. Most people assume that when they smoke they become addicted to nicotine, but there is now some scientific evidence that suggests nicotine is not as addictive as we used to believe. Researchers now think there is something about the act or habit of smoking that people get addicted to and that nicotine is the ‘vehicle’ that creates that addiction. Nicotine, therefore, is not the ‘primary’ addiction. However, there is evidence that nicotine replacement therapy works for some people, as it can help reduce the urge to smoke.
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People we talked with thought trying to stop smoking had caused them a wide range of responses including getting ‘snappy’ and irritable, feeling physically unwell, being unable to concentrate or sleep, experiencing a tightening in their chest or stomach, having the “shivers” and feeling depressed or hungry. A couple of people even felt that stopping smoking suddenly precipitated a panic attack. However some people who stopped smoking suddenly had no problems or only felt as if they had a ‘cold’ for a few days.
Some people found it hard when they couldn’t smoke for some hours, for example in a meeting, in daytime during Ramadan or on a flight. Some got into a ‘mild panic’ when they ran out of cigarettes.
Keith thought he had been addicted to nicotine but thought it “curious” that during long days at work he forgot about smoking. Sue had realised she was not addicted when her GP pointed out that “If you’re only having one in the morning... why don’t you just pack it up?” He said, “That’s ridiculous. You’re not addicted.” Sue says that he was the first person who actually told her that the desire for cigarettes was in her head.
John remembered a long train journey to Scotland that stopped once and all the smokers got off to smoke. He says “And even then I was starting to think this is a bit daft. Because you know, you’ve managed an hour and a half, you can manage another hour and a half. But you just felt it was you, you were a smoker, therefore that’s what you had to do. The whys didn’t make much sense”. Andy felt that it was “pathetic” he was “enslaved to a little white stick” and Peter said that it had become “associated with many other things that were... positive and enjoyable”.

Sometimes the fear of craving for a cigarette was worse than the craving itself: Roger said that he would prepare for times when tobacconists would be closed over Christmas holidays by buying in many packets of tobacco. Judith would smoke several cigarettes in quick succession if she knew she would not be able to smoke later, but wondered how much she needed them.
Many people had thought hard about their desire to smoke when they were considering giving up smoking; some were convinced that they had been addicted to nicotine while others felt it was more a social habit, or a combination of the two. Some people felt they must have a physical addiction to nicotine because when they tried ’light’ cigarettes they would just smoke twice as many.

People spoke about the ‘illogical’ nature of their desire for cigarettes, and how it was so powerful that despite the obvious risks of smoking they still continued. Haseen thought that he could resist almost all other temptations but still found it very difficult not to smoke. Sarah talked about the ‘function’ of her smoking, in that it gave her some sort of support with her eating disorder. Others talked about the role smoking had in reducing or controlling stress. Caroline said that even though she adored her children and they wanted her to quit, she still felt she had to smoke.
Some people thought only in retrospect they felt they had been addicted to nicotine. People spoke about having ingrained habits such as a ‘hand to mouth’ action; constantly thinking about smoking; collecting smoking paraphernalia such as tobacco tins, papers, ashtrays and lighters. Carol described herself as having an “addictive personality”, and talked about swapping “one addiction for another” in the sense that she now puts food in her mouth rather than cigarettes.
Although some people could manage to smoke less, cutting down or smoking light cigarettes were often not regarded as ways to decrease addiction to smoking.

Also see ‘Effects of not smoking’ and ‘Cutting down’ unsuccessful attempts and trying again’.

​Last reviewed August 2018.

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