Previous studies have already revealed that tobacco can be as addictive as heroin and cocaine. But what makes people crave a cigarette? And why is it so difficult for some to give up smoking, despite being aware of the dangers?
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the answer, after all, has to do with the fact that tobacco change the way brains work.
“Addiction is primarily defined as a loss of control over substance use and continued consumption despite the consequences,” he told the BBC. live science Bernard Le Foll, Chair of the Department of Addiction Psychiatry at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, Canada.
“Once an addiction to a substance has developed, people will have cravings and/or withdrawals when they haven’t used it for a certain period of time. Tobacco is addictive because it contains nicotine, a psychoactive substance with high addictive potential”, said Le Foll.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a psychoactive substance is one that impacts the way the brain works, causing “changes in mood, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, or behavior”. Other examples of psychoactive substances are LSD, alcohol and caffeine.
nicotine is especially addictive when smoked or because “the onset of stimulant effects occurs very quickly through this route of administration”, he told the live science David Ledgerwood, a psychologist in the Division of Substance Abuse Investigation at Wayne State University in Detroit.
While the initial “hit” of the pleasure of smoking a cigarette is felt almost immediately, it also wears off quickly, which, as Ledgerwood noted, leads smokers to consume tobacco products frequently in an attempt to achieve “the same stimulating experience.” .
When tobacco is consumed, nicotine levels skyrocket in the bloodstream and enter the brain. There, that one activates receptors that release dopamine, the “happiness” hormone, causing a feeling of well-being, explained the Mayo Clinic. As a result, smokers’ brains quickly come to regard nicotine as a good substance and will crave it in between cigarettes.
Chronic nicotine consumption increases the number of these receptors in the brain, which explains why addicted smokers have “billions more of these receptors than non-smokers,” reported the Mayo Clinic in a 2012 paper.
In the case of regular smokers, their brain gets so used to nicotine that eventually it can needing this substance “to function well”, indicated Ledgerwood. During periods when the addict does not smoke, he experiences withdrawal symptoms – inability to concentrate, insomnia, depression and lack of appetite – until the brain can adjust to the absence of nicotine.
The fact that cigarettes are legal, that they are “available at any gas station or store and can be smoked in many different places”, makes trying to quit “incredibly difficult”, he added.
Exposure to nicotine can disrupt brain development, the FDA said, being easier for young people to get addicted. Analyzed images of the brains of smokers showed that while reward systems in the brain mature early, the control center in the prefrontal cortex matures slowly.
“Compared to adults, young people are more motivated by rewards, less risk averse and more easily influenced by peers,” according to a report published in the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine.
Are some people prone to addiction?
But are some people more prone to addiction than others? “I don’t believe that people are immune to addiction”, said Ledgerwood. “Some people may be more likely to develop addictions than others,” he said, adding that “being exposed to addictive substances at an earlier age puts the individual at greater risk of developing an addiction.”
The Fagerström Test for Nicotine Dependence, created in 1978 by Swedish psychologist Karl-Olov Fagerström, is used to determine the level of nicotine dependence related to cigarette consumption. It has undergone several changes since its introduction, but it remains one of the main forms of evaluation to this day.
The test asks about the time when the individual smokes the first cigarette, how many smokes per day and if he smoked even if he was so sick that he was confined to bed. When someone scores particularly high, Ledgerwood pointed out, it’s likely not just because the body wants to frequent nicotine bursts.
“For many people who smoke, there are powerful factors that contribute to tobacco consumption. These individuals often grow up in homes where their parents smoke.”
And he continued: in addition to the availability of cigarettes, “there are still many representations of the smoking in popular culture – movies, television shows – which can contribute to the impression that smoking is normal or glamorous behavior”.
Additionally, studies have revealed that genetic factors play a role in nicotine addiction, meaning addiction can be hereditary, a 2010 analysis published in Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports.
The Mayo Clinic also claims that genetics “can influence how receptors on the surface of nerve cells in the brain react to high doses of nicotine administered by cigarettes.” So, due to genetic inheritancewhen people start smoking, some are more likely than others to continue.
In an investigation released in 2008 by the American Psychological Association it was found that “at least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug addiction may be linked to genetic factors.”
Despite the many risks associated with smoking, and although it is thought to contribute to the death of eight million people worldwide each year – including 1.2 million who die from exposure to passive smoking – tobacco remains widely available and easily accessible.
However, while the addiction manifests itself quickly, so do the benefits of quitting. According to the Mayo Clinic, 20 minutes after smoking a cigarette, the heart rate slows down; within 12 hours, carbon monoxide levels in the blood return to normal; within three months, lung function and circulation improve; and, after one year, the risk of a heart attack drops by half.