Smoking has been identified as the single greatest cause of preventable illness and premature death in Northern Ireland with around 2,3000 people dying from smoking related illnesses each year. Despite this, almost 1 in 4 adults in Northern Ireland are smokers, this increases to 1 in 3 in more deprived areas. Smoking is also more common among men, in the UK 17% of men smoked compared with just 13% of women.
Interestingly, 60% of people in the UK who currently smoke say that they want to quit.
We are going to look at why smoking is addictive, the harm it causes, why you should take that first step towards quitting and the resources available which can help you.
Why is smoking addictive?
Nicotine, contained in cigarettes, changes the balance of 2 chemicals in your brain: dopamine and noradrenaline. When the levels of these chemicals in your brain are changed by nicotine, your mood changes. This happens very quickly, when you inhale nicotine it rushes to your brain reducing stress, creating feelings of pleasure, and making you more relaxed. For smokers this effect is extremely enjoyable and something they want to experience over and over again: making them dependent or addicted. The more you smoke the more your brain becomes used to the effect of nicotine, this means to get the same relaxing and enjoyable effect you have to smoke more cigarettes.
The addictive nature of nicotine is why it is so difficult for many people to stop smoking. When you quit smoking the lack of nicotine changes the levels of dopamine and noradrenaline in your brain again. This can have a number of side effects:
- Cigarette cravings
- Irritability, frustration, or anger
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased appetite
- Constipation or upset stomach
- Decreased heart rate
It is important to remember that these feelings are only temporary and will pass the longer you go without smoking.
Smoking and your health
Smoking causes around 7 out of every 10 cases of lung cancer. It also causes cancer in many other parts of the body, including the:
- voice box (larynx)
- oesophagus (the tube between your mouth and stomach)
Smoking damages your heart and your blood circulation, increasing your risk of developing conditions such as:
- coronary heart disease
- heart attack
- peripheral vascular disease (damaged blood vessels)
- cerebrovascular disease (damaged arteries that supply blood to your brain)
Smoking also damages your lungs, leading to conditions such as:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which incorporates bronchitis and emphysema
- Smoking can also worsen or prolong the symptoms of respiratory conditions such as asthma, or respiratory tract infections such as the common cold.
Sexual and Fertility Problems
In men, smoking can cause impotence because it limits the blood supply to the penis.
It can also reduce the fertility of both men and women.
Why stop smoking?
When you stop smoking after 20 minutes
– Pulse rate returns to normal.
After 8 hours
– Nicotine and carbon monoxide levels in blood reduce by more than half and oxygen levels return to normal.
After 48 hours
– Carbon monoxide will be eliminated from the body. Lungs start to clear out mucus and other smoking debris.
After 48 hours
– There is no nicotine in the body. Ability to taste and smell is improved.
After 72 hours
– Breathing becomes easier. Bronchial tubes begin to relax and energy levels increase.
After 2-12 weeks
– Your circulation improves.
After 3-9 months
– Coughs, wheezing and breathing problems improve as lung function increases by up to 10%.
After 1 year
– Risk of heart disease is about half compared with a person who is still smoking.
After 10 years
– Risk of lung cancer falls to half that of a smoker.
After 15 years
– Risk of heart attack falls to the same as someone who has never smoked.
Health of others
The phrase ‘secondhand smoke’ is used to describe the effects smoking has on the people around you. Children are the most vulnerable to the effect of secondhand smoke because they breathe more rapidly than adults and their airways and lungs are less developed. Every time a child breathes in secondhand smoke, they breathe in thousands of chemicals, which puts them at risk of serious health conditions.
- Babies exposed to second-hand smoke are more at risk of cot death.
- Breathing second-hand smoke increases a child’s or an adult’s risk of lung cancer by 24% and heart disease by 25%.
- Children breathing in other people’s cigarette smoke results in 300,000 GP visits and 9,500 hospital admissions for children every year.
The average smoker has 13 cigarettes a day, which works out as 364 cigarettes a month. That’s £141 a month and £1,696 a year that you could be saving by not smoking. The NHS has a ‘cost calculator’ to show you how much money you could save if you gave up smoking, click here to explore it.
So, how do you quit? There are various ways to stop smoking and different methods work for different people.
Nicotine Replacement Therapy
This is probably the most common method of quitting. As we discussed early it is the nicotine in cigarettes that is addictive, Nicotine Replacement Therapy therefore works to provide nicotine to smokers in smaller doses and without the other harmful elements of cigarettes such as tar and tobacco. Nicotine is provided in the form of:
- skin patches
- chewing gum
- inhalators (which look like plastic cigarettes)
- tablets, oral strips and lozenges
- nasal and mouth spray
Most people find a combination of two or more NRT is helpful. This process normally lasts about 8/12 weeks before the dose is reduced and eventually stopped.
Varenicline (brand name Champix) is a medication that works by reducing cravings for nicotine like NRT and also blocking the rewarding and reinforcing effects of smoking. This is only available on prescription. It’s taken as 1 to 2 tablets a day and should be taken about a week before starting to quit cigarettes.
E-cigarettes or vaping
These allow you to inhale nicotine in vapour form rather than smoke, which is inherently more healthy. They’re not completely risk free, but they carry a small fraction of the risk of cigarettes as they do not produce tar or carbon monoxide, two of the most harmful elements in tobacco smoke.
The NHS reports that ‘a major UK clinical trial published in 2019 found that, when combined with expert face-to-face support, people who used e-cigarettes to quit smoking were twice as likely to succeed as people who used other nicotine replacement products, such as patches or gum’.
E-cigarettes are not available from the NHS on prescription. You can buy them from specialist vape shops and other retailers, or on the internet.
Studies show that you’re up to 4 times more likely to quit smoking if you do it through the NHS. The first step is to see your GP, who can refer you to one of the NHS’s ‘Stop Smoking’ Support Services.
These programmes provide treatments like nicotine patches and gum or medicine treatments which are free on prescription. They also provide counselling, online support, and a Personal Quit Plan to help you achieve your goals. Visit the website here.
The NHS offer 10 self-help tips to quit smoking which include: making and sticking to a plan, keeping your hands and mouth busy, socialising with non-smokers, and thinking positive. Read their full article here.
Here are some other resources to help you quit:
Follow this link for your Quit Kit.
Read success stories of other quitters.
Join the SmokeFree Community on Facebook.
However you quit, know that to do so will improve your life and the lives of those around you. If you have quit or are trying to quit smoking give advice, ask for help, or start the conversation in the thread below.