Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter
 

Smoking and cancer: Why do people smoke?

Nicotine is a very addictive drug. People smoke for many different reasons. Smoking is very addictive because tobacco contains a powerful drug called nicotine. Smokers have also been influenced by the clever marketing tactics of tobacco companies for many years.

Nicotine as a drug

Cigarettes are deliberately designed to give you a fast nicotine hit. It takes just 10 seconds for the drug to reach your brain from inhaled cigarette smoke. Nicotine causes addiction in much the same way as heroin or cocaine. It is just as addictive as these ‘harder’ drugs.

Nicotine is a stimulant that increases your heart rate and affects many different parts of your brain and body. Smokers get a high because nicotine triggers the release of dopamine in the brain - a chemical linked to feelings of pleasure.

This also means that smokers start to make a mental link between the act of smoking and feeling good. Because of this, smokers can also become addicted to abstract things like the taste of cigarettes or the feeling of smoking, as well as the nicotine itself.

Withdrawal symptoms

Addiction explains why giving up smoking can cause nicotine withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include cravings, irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, restlessness and disturbed sleep.

As your body adjusts to the lack of nicotine, these symptoms will start to disappear and most will go away within a month. Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to cope but the benefits to your health are well worth it.

Nicotine as a poison

Nicotine is a neurotoxin (a poison that kills nerve cells) found in tobacco plants. It acts as a defence mechanism to stop them from being eaten by animals.

However, in cigarettes, the level of nicotine is too low to cause poisoning. And the nicotine in nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is a safe way to come off the nicotine in cigarettes. Using NRT can double your chances of successfully quitting.

Tobacco advertising and promotion

Half of smokers die from smoking-related diseases. The tobacco industry needs new customers to replace the 114,000 people who are killed by smoking in the UK each year. Cigarette manufacturers make sure that:

  • they know exactly why people smoke
  • they cleverly market products to attract new customers.

In the past cigarette manufacturers have deliberately targeted children and young people. The industry spends a great deal of money on making cigarettes seem glamorous, appealing, fashionable and attractive. Most smokers started when they were young and image conscious. Young smokers often find it difficult to give up in later life.

Cigarette advertising is now banned in the UK. So the industry is developing new and subtle tactics to avoid prosecution.

Stress and relaxation

Many people claim that smoking helps them to cope with stress. But in fact, nicotine is a stimulant and won’t help you to relax. Smokers probably think a cigarette makes them feel better because when they aren’t smoking they suffer from nicotine withdrawal.

Other personal reasons for smoking

People have many other personal reasons for smoking. Smokers may:

  • use smoking as a support for when things go wrong
  • enjoy smoking with others as a shared activity
  • use smoking to start conversations and meet new people
  • smoke to make themselves look more confident and in control
  • think that cigarettes help them to keep their weight down
  • have a cigarette when they’re feeling bored or lonely
  • smoke when they need a break or a moment to themselves.

Knowing why you smoke is one of the first steps towards giving up.

No Error

Rate this page:
Submit rating
Rated 4 out of 5 based on 97 votes
Rate this page
Rate this page for no comments box
Please enter feedback to continue submitting
Send feedback
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team

Visit our A-Z topic pages

Updated: 25 September 2009