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Why we keep smoking

If it’s no secret that smoking causes potentially lethal diseases — and it can make our skin age faster too. So why do so many people still smoke? One of the reasons is because the tobacco in cigarettes contains nicotine, a stimulant drug that can be as addictive as ‘harder’ drugs like heroin and cocaine — even though nicotine is legal.

What makes nicotine so addictive?

Nicotine works very fast, reaching the brain within a few seconds of puffing on a cigarette. It can make smokers feel more alert, and like some other addictive drugs including heroin, nicotine boosts levels of a ‘feel-good’ brain chemical called dopamine. It’s this effect that helps keep smokers coming back for more, despite the risks.

Once someone is physically addicted to a drug, their system needs regular top ups to feel normal. If they decide to quit they have to deal — temporarily — with withdrawal symptoms. In the case of nicotine these can include irritability, nicotine cravings, difficulty concentrating and difficulty sleeping. But these symptoms soon improve.

What else keeps people smoking?

Besides nicotine’s addictive effects, there can be other reasons people continue to smoke. If you want to quit, knowing the reasons you smoke is useful — it can help you find other ways to meet the needs that smoking currently fulfils.

Reasons people continue smoking include:

  • To relieve stress or as a ‘crutch’ when things go wrong. But while nicotine can relax muscles, in fact it can also increase stress and can make you feel agitated, according to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. You can learn better, healthier ways to manage stress — like all the other quitters who’ve gone before you.
  • To help them concentrate. You can learn to concentrate without smoking — chewing gum is another way that helps.
  • To deal with boredom or being alone. Again, there are other ways to cope — like finding a new interest, getting some exercise or using the computer.
  • Because it’s a way of having a break. There are other ways to have a break — do some stretches, have a warm drink (without a cigarette), read something or call a friend.
  • Fear of withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms won’t last forever. There are (non-nicotine) prescription drugs and nicotine replacement products that can help you cope with these symptoms, as well as self-help strategies and support programs.
  • Fear of putting on weight. Quitting actually makes it easier to be more active and burn off extra kilojoules. However, it’s true that nicotine acts as an appetite suppressant so some people may find that when they quit smoking they replace smoking with snacks and sweets. But you can avoid putting on weight by eating a healthy diet, snacking on low-kilojoule foods and using non-food ways to reward or treat yourself.

You may also be hiding behind excuses to justify your smoking habit and dodge the issue of quitting, like saying ‘I’m going to quit soon — but just not yet’. Acknowledging the reasons you smoke can be a good way of challenging some of the common ways you rationalise your smoking habit .

Common rationalisations you may use to keep lighting up include:

  • ‘My auntie smoked and she lived until she was 92’. People who keep smoking into old age are rare — half of regular smokers die from their habit.
  • ‘You’ve got to die of something’. Yes, but it’s not just death you should worry about — smoking-related diseases cause disability and reduced quality of life. Smoking also increases the chances of dying early — on average smokers die ten years earlier than non-smokers.
  • ‘You’re just as likely to get cancer from air pollution and breathing in petrol fumes.’ The main risk factor for lung cancer is smoking.
  • ‘I don’t smoke much — just a couple of cigarettes a day’. There’s no safe level of smoking. Research shows one to four cigarettes a day can almost triple the risk of dying of heart disease or lung cancer.

Further Information



Cancer Council WA. Make Smoking history. [online] Shenton Park, WA: Cancer Council WA. 2009 [accessed 30 Aug 2010] Available from:

Cancer Research UK. Why do people smoke? [online] London, UK: Cancer Research UK. [last updated 25 Sept 2009, accessed 30 Aug 2010] Available from:

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Tobacco. [online] Kensington, NSW: University of NSW Faculty of Medicine. c2005 [accessed 30 Aug 2010] Available from:$file/TOBACCO+2.pdf

Tänzer U Von Fintel A Eikermann T. Chewing gum and concentration performance. Psychological Reports. 2009; 105: 372–374.

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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