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The Many Faces of Cigarette Addiction - Nicotine Dependency, Oral Fixation, and More

June 29, 2017

Why can’t smokers just quit!?

Don’t they know that there are dozens of reasons to do it? Don’t they know they’ll live longer, healthier, more productive lives if they just kick that dirty habit? I mean - how difficult could dropping something that disgusting really be?

If you’re a smoker or an ex-smoker, chances are you’ve come across an anti-smoking crusader ready to offer their piece of mind - and it’s usually something along the lines of what you’ve just read. Heck, you might even be the one telling it to people!

Here’s the ugly answer to that last question: quitting smoking can be the hardest thing in the world to do. And the fact is, smokers who try to quit and fail should not be blamed - they should be helped. According to the World Health Organization, there are currently over 1 BILLION active smokers in the world. Think about it. One eight of the population is hooked on cigarettes. That’s a really sobering number.

What’s even more distressing is the fact that TWO-THIRDS of smokers (at least in the US, according to the CDC) want to quit smoking. They want to get rid of that habit.

But they can’t.

Some of them started smoking because it was the cool thing at the time. Others because they were going through a rough patch and smoking provided a release of sorts. Their reasons for starting vary but most of them are united in their desire to quit.

So why don’t they? Why can’t they?

The answer is - they are addicted to cigarettes and that addiction is every bit as bad as alcoholism or hardcore substance abuse.

Why Cigarette Addiction Is Nothing to be Laughed At

Cigarette addiction is two-fold: it’s a physical addiction to a chemical compound called nicotine and a psychological addiction to behaviors learned during one’s smoking career.

Smokers who are struggling to quit evidently have a lot on their plate. They have to battle with physically needing to light up a cigarette and that urge is often enough to break them into submission. If they manage to pull through that phase (which is usually at its worst during the first 72 hours after smoking the last cigarette) they still have to deal with other, psychological, struggles that might completely sidetrack them.

Generally, smokers who want to quit smoking have to be prepared to do battle with three different addictions and learned behaviors:

  • Nicotine addiction (physical nicotine dependency)
  • Oral fixation (psychological condition)
  • Restless hands syndrome (psychological condition)

Let’s take a closer look at all three.


Physical Nicotine Addiction - How Smokers ‘Reward’ Themselves to Death

Nicotine is an alkaloid found in the nightshade family of plants. To cut a (really) long story short, these plants developed it as a defense mechanism against vermin that’s out to get them - and kudos to them. When a bug takes a nibble on the tobacco plant, it ingests a little dose of nicotine and immediately feels queasy. Its natural reaction is to find a different food source.


If only nicotine had the same effect on humans. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Nicotine inhaled by a smoker via cigarettes acts as a stimulant of the parasympathetic nervous system - effectively, it messes with the reward pathways of the brain.

Here’s what happens when you smoke a cigarette. In around 10 seconds of the inhalation, nicotine travels to your brain. Once there, it triggers the brain to produce dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s responsible for a lot of things, among others the feeling of pleasure. It regulates mood, feeling, sleep, and cognition and is extremely important in brain chemistry.

As such, dopamine is linked to the brain's reward system - when we’re pleasantly surprised, eating the food we love, or actually making love, that warm glowy feeling of satisfaction is actually the effect of dopamine flooding our brain.


And nicotine wreaks havoc with that whole system. Think of it like this - every time you smoke a cigarette nicotine is tricking your brain into thinking that it’s eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake. Or making love. It’s hard to say which is worse!

As quickly as nicotine gets to the brain, it begins to dissipate even quicker. Once nicotine levels in the system fall, so do levels of dopamine. That’s why smokers reach for that 20th cigarette of the day so readily - they don’t feel good and they know that if they just light one up, things will get better.

Nicotine has another unfortunate side effect. It also acts as an adrenal gland stimulant, causing it to flood the body with adrenaline. Various chemical interactions that quickly follow in the body signal the brain that it’s time to increase blood sugars. So nicotine also acts (although by proxy) as a hunger suppressant, which is why smokers generally don’t feel hungry after smoking a cigarette.

This vicious circle of chemical reactions in the body is the main reason why smokers have a tough time quitting. A few simple puffs are more than enough to throw a sophisticated system, such as the human body, into complete disarray, ultimately making it painfully dependable on nicotine.

Psychological Addiction to Cigarettes - Oral Fixation and Restless Hands

As if the physical component of this addiction wasn’t enough, smokers also have to cope with psychological ones. This is known as cigarette oral fixation. Essentially, the fact that smokers are so accustomed to having a cigarette in their mouth makes it almost impossible not to chew or suck on something.

Some scientists think that cigarette acts like some sort of a pacifier. When a person is anxious, troubled, or uncomfortable, they may look to lessen those feelings by deriving some sort of gratification orally. A cigarette offers a perfect opportunity to do just that. A lot of smokers say that how much they smoke during the day is often influenced by how stressful they feel. If they are under a lot of stress, they tend to smoke more.


It’s important to note that this urge for oral gratification remains in ex-smokers for a long time after they’ve successfully kicked the habit. They are constantly nibbling on something, chewing gum, or gnawing on toothpicks, Those who are not careful often end up gaining a lot of weight because they substitute smoking with food.

Another psychological facet of cigarette addiction is something we tentatively call ‘restless hands syndrome’. It’s the idea that smokers developed a habit of constantly holding something in their hand and moving it towards the mouth. In that respect, this phenomenon is tightly tied to oral fixation. That movement habit that was developing for months (and, in cases, for years) is difficult to break but it ultimately breaks a lot of people who are quitting and puts them back on the beaten path towards picking up a cigarette. This is especially true in social situations where people are fidgety and they reach towards a cigarette simply to keep their hands from flailing about.

There is No Quick Fix for Cigarette Addiction

Sadly, this is very true.

After reading this, you probably have more appreciation for smokers who are struggling. It’s important to realize that there’s more to cigarette addiction than laziness or lack of determination  to quit on the part of the smokers. Whether you’re a smoker or not, you now understand that, in addition to physical nicotine dependence, there are also psychological aspects of this addiction, such as oral gratification with cigarettes and other habitual and learned behaviors.

Vaping offers a way to keep the physical component of the addiction under check, which is why so many smokers turn to it. We’re not saying that nicotine is healthy - nothing that detrimentally influences the body to such an extent is - but vaping drastically cuts down the intake of other toxins, such as tar and other chemicals which cause cancer.

So next time you’re talking to a smoker (if you’re not one yourself in which case, think hard about what you just read) don’t berate them about smoking. Show that you appreciate the fact that quitting is difficult and talk to them about vaping as an alternative that might make the whole process a lot easier.