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Up In Smoke

by Lecia Bushak
Denis Charlet—AFP

Denis Charlet—AFP

Nicotine isn’t the most addictive drug in cigarettes.

Scientists are learning more about why it can be so hard to quit smoking. Sure, nicotine is a fiercely addictive drug—but that’s only part of the story. Just look at all the millions of would-be ex-smokers who keep on lighting up despite having consumed pharmacies full of nicotine patches, nicotine gum and lozenges, nicotine spray and inhalers.

What drives the habit?

One answer came out last month at this year’s Smokefree Oceania conference in Auckland, New Zealand. A team of researchers there reported experimental confirmation that some forms of tobacco contain an additional chemical—if not more than one—that could make the plant even more addictive than plain nicotine. “This extra chemical is an additional thing that makes smoking harder to give up,” Penny Truman of the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) told The New Zealand Herald. “I believe if we are going to get the best smoking-cessation methods, we need to understand it.”

Scientists have wondered for a while if tobacco had more than one addictive component, so Truman and her fellow scientists at ESR and Victoria University of Wellington set out to test that hypothesis. They equipped the cages of some lab rats with lever-activated systems for three different saline solutions: one of diluted nicotine, another of dissolved smoke from factory-made cigarettes, and the third one of dissolved smoke from roll-your-own tobacco. Each test animal had to push its lever an ascending number of times in order to get a dose of its assigned drug.

The rats showed a strong craving for one “reward” in particular; they pushed the lever significantly more times for the roll-your-own smoke. “That is a formal proof that some tobacco substances are more addictive than nicotine [alone] is,” Truman said.

It’s likely to be a while before those addictive substances are identified. Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,800 chemicals, including at least 69 known carcinogens. But Chris Bullen, director of Auckland University’s National Institute for Health Innovation, is enthusiastic about the new study. “It could in part explain why nicotine-replacement therapy and other [nicotine-withdrawal] products … might not be as effective as they could be.”

In fact, those products can be surprisingly unhelpful. According to one study published earlier this year, smokers were just as likely to fail in their efforts to quit by using nicotine-replacement therapy as they were without it. Of course, anyone who has ever lit up can tell you that addiction isn’t purely chemical: There’s also the social aspect of smoking, the familiar habit of holding a cigarette or smoking in certain situations.

But it’s more complicated than that. Scientists have discovered that the puzzle has a genetic component: Smoking-cessation medication gives differing levels of relief to different people, depending on their individual genetic makeup. A recent study identified a gene that can predict whether smokers attempting to quit are likely to respond positively to nicotine-replacement therapy. The same gene also controls how quickly the smoker’s body metabolizes nicotine. According to senior investigator Dr. Laura Jean Bierut, the hope is that the additional information could improve the chances of kicking the habit for good.

Although the prevalence of adult smoking in the U.S. has dropped from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 19.3 percent in 2010, the number of people who manage to quit smoking remains low, according to the American Cancer Society. Within three months of quitting, seven in 10 smokers are back to smoking; by the time a year is up, that number is close to nine in 10.

Truman and team want to determine exactly what made their experimental tobacco so addictive. If they can figure that out, they may have the key to developing a better medication for helping smokers quit. Until then, there’s just one thing to say to an aspiring ex-smoker: Keep trying. If you’re motivated to quit once, you’ll probably be motivated to quit again. Do it enough times, and you’ll beat the addiction.

From our Nov. 15, 2013, issue.

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Julia Bergener November 11, 2013 - 5:09 am

Vape on!!

John November 11, 2013 - 5:28 am

I finally was able to quit tobacco based products a little over a year ago by taking up vapping. In fact I was a two pack a day smoker and quit the same day I got a ego battery clearomizer set up with 24 mg liquid. In six months I was at 12mg and am now vapping 6mg and yes 0mg. I will say that in my experience nicotine is nowhere as addictive as it’s said to be. How do I know this well by the fact that after a month of vapping I would go hours without using my pv and did not experience any of the withdrawal symptoms I experieced when I smoked tobacco and couldn’t light up when I wanted to. I also have a friend who experienced the same thing. I firmly believe that it is one or more of the additives they add to tobacco that is causing the addiction and making quitting so difficult. If there are any others out there with a similar experience sound off and let us know. These scientist are still trying to create a pill that will help people stop smoking by testing animals when they.could just start asking vappers about their experiences. We vappers know for sure what will get you permantly to quit smoking. It is sad how this being attacked all over the world when it has the potential to save millions of lives.

Nick Wilson November 19, 2013 - 1:38 pm

Interesting. I have been off of cigarettes for about seven months, ever since I started vaping. I have always made sure to have back-ups for my back-ups, so I never had to go without a vape for any extended period of time. That changed this evening when I had to go to work and realized I had no batteries charged up with a dying PV. I went to work without anything, and seven hours later realized that I had hardly even noticed the absence of my gear. I experienced none of the “withdrawal” symptoms I would experience after an hour or two of not smoking.

Hardly scientific on my part, but I think it makes complete sense that nicotine is only a small part of what many of us have become physically addicted to in cigarettes.

Jeff Hundley November 11, 2013 - 9:54 am

E-cigarettes have saved my life. I smoked at least two packs of non filter cigarettes everyday for 36 years, from the age of 16 to the age of 52. My health was in decline, and breathing freely was getting harder each day. I tried to quit using various methods including cold turkey, nicotine patches, nicotine gum, nicotine inhalers and even hypnotism. Nothing worked until I tried e-cigarettes last October. I have stayed away from regular cigarettes for almost a year now, with no withdrawal symptoms. I no longer have the phlegm and lung congestion that had developed over the years. My smokers cough is gone completely. I can run and exercise without getting out of breath. I can smell a smoker from twenty feet away now, and it stinks. I’m ashamed to have subjected family, friends and strangers to that smell for so many years. I have gone from the highest nicotine level that is available from e-cig manufacturers, to the lowest. My next step is the 0 nicotine content vapor, and then to quit completely. This is my real life study of the health effects of E Cigarettes, and the only one that counts for me.

Almost one year, and I cannot even entertain the idea of going back to tobacco products. See, that’s the thing. These are not tobacco products. Nicotine is said to be the main addictive ingredient in tobacco, but also occurs naturally in many plants and foods. Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is also known as Nicotinic Acid and nicotinamide. I think that nicotine is not the most addictive ingredient, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to reduce my nicotine intake the way I have. Over the years I’ve always increased my tobacco consumption. Something is very different now.

castello2 November 11, 2013 - 10:08 am

Nicotine is not very addictive. From 2009 http://www.statepress.com/archive/node/7194

Greg Thompson November 16, 2013 - 2:28 am

I firmly believe that cigarettes contain one or more active ingredients that are far more addictive that just nicotine. I quit smoking 5 months ago when I got my first electronic vaporizer. I transitioned from smoking 1-2 packs of full flavored cigarettes to vaping in less than 2 weeks, and the only reason it took that long is because I had just bought a brand new carton of smokes a day or two before I bought the electronic cigarette. I too remember the craving and jittery-ness I would feel when I needed to smoke, and it is nothing like how I feel now when I want to have a vape. If I am busy enough I will forget to vape and it can be 4-5 hours before I even think about using my PV(personal vaporizer). That fact alone is proof enough for me that tobacco cigarettes have something else in them that makes them far more addictive and possibly dangerous. The most interesting thing about my experience is the fact that I did not even want to quit smoking! I liked to smoke and I used to like the taste of cigarettes(I thought)! I just bought the ecig on a whim and after using it for 2 days I knew I was going to quit smoking real cigarettes. So if anyone reading has ever had any desire to quit smoking cigarettes, get an electronic cigarette, you won’t be sorry!

Joey Mariano November 21, 2013 - 2:33 pm

Lookup MAOI in cigarettes.


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