QUITTING SMOKING ∙ 3 minutes read

3 reasons why quitting smoking is harder than it may seem

By Nina Bryant | Medically reviewed by Dr Jaskirt Matharu

Feel like you can’t live without smoking? Are cigarettes an integral part of your daily routine? Think you should quit but don’t really want to? If you’re a smoker, all these feelings are completely normal: smoking is incredibly addictive. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t question them. 

It is widely known that smoking is bad for you and that stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do for your overall health. Recent research has even shown that tobacco-related lung damage has the potential to be reduced after quitting smoking, so there’s no excuse for saying “it’s too late to quit”. However, the process of stopping smoking takes an enormous amount of mental strength, which shouldn’t be underestimated.

Below are some reasons why you might feel like you can’t (or don’t want to) stop smoking.

Genes

Studies have shown that a predisposition to take up smoking and the likelihood of becoming addicted to cigarettes could be inherited. Dependence may be related to nicotine metabolism (with genetically slow nicotine metabolism linked to lower rates of dependence), or genetic variation affecting dopamine activity. This doesn’t mean you are destined to be a smoker: genes are only one part of the equation. It just makes stopping smoking that much more of an accomplishment.

Not everyone will successfully stop smoking the first time they try. Stopping smoking is going to be your own personal experience, and it’s important to remember that some people may take longer than others. Don’t give up just because your friends seem to be able to stop more easily than you: it may just be that quitting is harder for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Stopping smoking may just require that extra bit of patience and perseverance.

If this feels like the case, you may benefit from stop-smoking treatment, such as Champix, instead of going cold turkey.

Biochemical rewards

The reason that smoking is so addictive is that it contains nicotine. With every puff, nicotine is thought to increase dopamine levels, which in turn signals a pleasurable experience. Interestingly, this effect on dopamine has even been found to be different in men than in women, suggesting the rewarding effects of nicotine may play a greater role in men’s smoking behaviours.

On top of this, the actual act of smoking tobacco means the nicotine reaches your brain quickly (by being absorbed into the bloodstream via the lungs). This means the reward you receive from cigarettes is almost instantaneous, making you more likely to become addicted. But there’s a catch. This experience of reward will quickly dwindle, leaving you craving another cigarette.

Smoking cues

Smoking-related cues can play a role in smoking relapse. Studies using brain-imaging techniques have actually found that smokers respond differently to smoking cues than other visual stimuli. These responses may be even stronger if you have stopped smoking.

Smoking cues can include things like cigarette packets, lighters, and other things that you usually associate with smoking (such as alcohol or your morning coffee). Exposure to smoking cues can make you more likely to relapse, meaning it may be incredibly tough for your brain to resist lighting up if you live with other smokers, or are frequently exposed to smoking cues.

The bottom line

Stopping smoking takes an incredible amount of mental strength. If you are ready to stop, don’t feel defeated if your quit smoking plan doesn’t go completely smoothly - that’s completely normal and by no means a reason to give up. Remember, you may not successfully quit smoking on your first attempt, but by understanding the biological mechanisms at work behind your smoking, you can keep persisting and take responsibility for your health.

Related articles:

How it works: the Quit Smoking Programme

What happens to your body when you quit smoking?