The Effects of Smoking Tobacco and Difficulty of Quitting

Most of us probably know at least a handful of tobacco smokers in our surroundings, whether it’s in the family, at school, or at work. In this article, we will discuss the history and impact of using tobacco, and the challenges of quitting.


Many pieces of research have found that tobacco use has reached epidemic proportions globally. It is believed that 1.3 billion people smoke. The World Health Organization estimates that in 2020, 22.3% of the global population smoked tobacco, including 36.7% of men and 7.8% of women worldwide. Research (1) also shows that the country that has the most tobacco users is China (300.8 million smokers), followed by India (205.9 million smokers).


The dangers of smoking

Everyone is aware of the dangers of smoking. It is known that cigarettes harm almost every part of the body as they contain around 4000 chemicals (2). The effects of smoking are:

  • Reduces life expectancy
  • Lung cancer
  • Breathing problems and respiratory conditions
  • Heart disease, stroke, and blood circulation problems
  • Fertility problems
  • Infections- as it weakens the immune system.


 It is a remarkable phenomenon that so many people still smoke despite knowing all the health repercussions. And after seeing these unexpected numbers in the face of the facts, we ought to ask ourselves: why do people smoke? And why is it so hard to quit, no matter how much smokers try?


Before answering these questions, let’s go through a brief history of smoking.

The History of Smoking

History report that tobacco has been cultivated since about 5000-3000 BC in the Americas, where it was used widely (2). People have sniffed, chewed, smoked, and made tea with it; however, it was used for various other purposes.


Tobacco was used as a pesticide in agriculture or as a remedy against lice and other parasites. It is believed that tobacco has analgesic and antiseptic properties. It has even been used in eye drops. In the first thousands of years since its discovery, tobacco was mainly consumed by Native Americans.


The most widely used method of tobacco consumption was smoking, with the plant being rolled up into cigars or stuffed into a pipe. It was common to think of pipes as having social and religious purposes, as they were smoked by the representatives of Native American tribes. 


The crew members of Columbus’ expedition, having landed in what is now Cuba in 1492, were the first Europeans to smoke tobacco. The seeds were then brought to Spain and Portugal for cultivation, and through the plunder of Spanish ships returning from the Americas, the British first came into contact with it. 


Even Queen Elizabeth I smoked tobacco in her court, showing its desirability as an exotic product. Tobacco was very expensive and unaffordable to regular people due to its scarcity and high status, resulting in the English people growing their own from what seeds they managed to obtain. 


Later in Europe, smoking pipes together was seen as a gesture of goodwill, peace, and diplomacy.


During the 1850s, cigarettes started being manufactured, becoming the primary source of nicotine, especially during the First World War. The nicotine intake through the lungs -compared to cigars and pipes whose smoke is not inhaled- offers a more immediate effect and an instant sense of satisfaction since it travels quicker to the brain, making it the most popular nicotine intake method.


Health experts’ contribution to tobacco smoking

A few decades later in the interwar period, the doctors and researchers hadn’t yet discovered a clear link between smoking and diseases, even as lung cancer cases started increasing and widely occurring in the 1920s. Finding a link between tobacco and illness required longitudinal studies, and there wasn’t good enough evidence showing how bad smoking was for health.


Tobacco companies gained more influence and power, even using physicians to promote and advertise their brands. The first company to do this type of advertisement was “Lucky Strikes” in 1930 when they published an ad claiming that “20,679 physicians say that ‘Luckies’ are less irritating to the throat.” Many doctors reacted positively to this claim (3).


In the 1950s, tangible evidence proving the dangers of smoking started to emerge and became the first health warning. This meant that the tobacco companies could no longer use physicians to promote their brand and their marketing strategies began to shift, saying that “they don’t know yet if it’s truly harmful.”


The Tobacco Industry Research Committee published “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers,” claiming that the research linking smoking with diseases could apply to many other aspects of modern life and not just smoking (4).


During the 1960s, smoking was a background in everyday life, and even though smokers had a vague idea of the dangers of smoking, very few quit. Even today, when the evidence is overwhelming, many fail to quit or even attempt to.


Why do people smoke?

When we talk about the habit of smoking, we can refer to different key elements such as:

  • The smoker’s age
  • Psychosocial motives
  • Addiction to Nicotine.


Several studies show that the population most likely to get addicted to smoking is teenagers. It is believed that the majority of adult smokers started in their childhood or teenage years. You’re probably wondering why young people start smoking. In this context, we can refer to “social or peer pressure.”


A lot of teenagers fear being marginalized and always want to conform to their peers or model their behaviors to feel included (5). For teenagers and young adults, smoking is a cool habit, and for other teenagers, it is a way to rebel against their parents. Teenagers are known for wanting to explore and try new things that go against the rules, and smoking is a perfect opportunity to do just that.


The majority would say that smoking helps them cope with stress, boredom, and loneliness and refer to smoking as “a pleasure” that helps them relax when they are experiencing negative emotions such as anger, stress, or sadness. A minority smokes for other reasons such as weight loss -as smoking cigarettes is known to reduce the appetite- and even for singing -as smoking helps get a deeper voice.





Tobacco addiction and the difficulty of quitting

But what happens, cigarette after cigarette?

 This is where the element of addiction pops up. Why do the teenagers who smoke grow up to be adults who smoke? Why is it so hard to quit?


Nicotine, the main active ingredient in cigarettes, is an addictive chemical seen in tobacco plants. It is the main reason that people smoke. Nicotine reaches the brain 10 seconds after the first inhalation. It travels to the lungs and is absorbed in the bloodstream. Once it gets to the heart, it is pumped through the whole body, including the brain. This addictive stimulant chemical is known for inducing the release of dopamine -or the happy hormone-which makes the smoker feel more relaxed and increases their attention and focus.


However, dopamine has a short life. Its effects usually wear off and disappear from the bloodstream within two hours. Making smokers experience repetitive patterns. As the body adapts to nicotine intake, smokers increase the number of cigarettes to maintain their high concentration, explaining why many smokers light a cigarette every one or few hours, which creates, in turn, a stronger dependence on it.


If smokers don’t get their nicotine intake, they experience withdrawal symptoms, like any other addictive drug. These symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Inability to concentrate.


It is estimated that 2 out of 3 smokers show a willingness to quit, but only a few succeed. What makes quitting even harder are the “Mental Triggers.”Smokers generally have a routine with smoking, as it is included in different areas of their everyday life; perhaps having coffee with a cigarette, smoking while driving, after eating, or drinking.


It becomes harder to quit, especially when you know a lot of smokers in your entourage, as the temptation will be harder to resist.


Solutions and methods adopted to help smokers quit 

Nowadays, the world is trying to bring to light the dangers of smoking. There are solutions and help available such as; nicotine patches, gum, therapy, or medical help.



Some countries are trying various methods to help people quit, such as:

  1. Increasing the prices of cigarettes
  2. Generalizing non-smoking areas
  3. Showing graphic pictures of the possible consequences of smoking on the packaging.


Whether these measures will work is for the future to show, but most people would likely agree that it is at least worth trying, considering the prevalence and harmfulness of smoking in the modern age.


By: Yasmine Hamrouni (psychologist)