If restaurants and bars provided a location for addicted people to shoot up heroin, most patrons would be scandalized, and it’s likely the authorities would move in to close the place down permanently. Similarly, if a person on a first date asked for permission to step outside and snort a line of cocaine, the partner on that date might be tempted to terminate the encounter at that very moment. In general, as the risks and dangers of addiction become clearer, few people choose to publicly support recreational drug use.
In fact, most people are adamantly against the practice. However, there is one substance that does seem to be supported by at least some members of the general public, even though that substance has been proven to be remarkably addictive. That addictive element is nicotine.
A Dangerous Substance
Tobacco is so prevalent within the culture that it’s easy to think of cigarettes as essentially harmless. When movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s are smoking cigarette after cigarette and dime-store cowboy novels are full of hard-boiled ranch hands who spit tobacco juice at their enemies, the dangers behind the substances seem to wane in importance. The truth is that nicotine is considered one of the most addictive substances known to man.
According to an article on the topic, produced by the University of Minnesota, nicotine is 1,000 times more potent than alcohol and 10 to 100 times more potent than barbiturates. The “high” that users feel when they take in nicotine might not seem intense, but the drug has the capacity to completely hijack the brain and bring about an amazing array of different effects.
When a user takes in nicotine, the drug heads to the brain, where it augments or increases the levels of chemicals in the brain, including:
Dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of pleasure
Acetylcholine, which is responsible for feelings of arousal
Serotonin, which can modulate mood
Norepinephrine, which is also responsible for arousal and can suppress feelings of hunger
Vasopressin, which can improve memory
Beta-endorphin, which can reduce feelings of anxiety
As this makes clear, nicotine is powerful, and it has the ability to change a variety of different chemicals within the brain. A person who takes in nicotine is profoundly altered by the activity, and according to an article produced by Netscape, a typical pack-per-day smoker absorbs between 20 to 40 mg of the substance, each and every day.
Nicotine might be so very addictive because it has the ability both to increase arousal and to bring about relaxation. Most drugs of abuse are able to do only one of these things. Heroin, for example, can produce an intense feeling of relaxation and sedation, but it’s not able to help most users feel more alert or focused. Similarly, cocaine can help people to feel alert and focused, but these same people might have difficulty with relaxation and sleep. People who use tobacco, on the other hand, may find that the first hit of the day helps them to feel awake and ready to move forward, while using tobacco late at night helps them to calm down and prepare for sleep. Nicotine becomes a form of all-consuming help that can do almost everything for the person.
Many people who are addicted to tobacco are also addicted to all of the habits that go into preparing tobacco. People who smoke may be enamored with the idea of rolling a cigarette, tamping it on the countertop, lighting a match and tapping out the ashes. All of these movements are locked within the user’s body, and they serve as a powerful reinforcement for the power of the addiction. When that person sees matches or an ashtray, or that person watches someone else preparing a cigarette, the urge to use could be overwhelming.
Since nicotine has the ability to bring about all of these different types of effects, it’s not surprising that people who begin using nicotine develop addictions rather quickly, moving from experimentation to daily use in a matter of weeks, or even less. Research conducted by the Henry Ford Health Sciences Center suggests that about 90 percent of smokers are daily users. These aren’t people who are dabbling with the drug, or using it on occasion to assist with a bad day or a challenging event. Instead, these are people who are taking high levels of this same drug on a compulsive basis.
Addiction is a personal disease, and people with nicotine addictions might have symptoms that don’t mesh with the symptoms felt by someone else with the same addiction.
In general, however, there are a few signs of addiction that tend to remain the same in people who abuse addictive drugs. These signs are:
Compulsive use. People with nicotine addictions are driven to use tobacco, even though they might know that the drug isn’t good for their health.
Inability to quit or limit use. Addictions can be strong, and people who are hooked might make multiple attempts to limit how much nicotine they use or how often they use. These same people might find their compulsion to use is stronger than their urge to control use.
Life choices centered on use. People with nicotine addictions might not go to restaurants that don’t allow smoking, or they might look for jobs that allow them to smoke throughout the day. The addiction becomes the focal point of life.
Defensiveness when confronted with use. While people with addictions might know that they should quit, they might also become incredibly upset at the suggestion that they should quit.
There are some people with nicotine addictions who know very well that they are addicted, and these people might desperately want to quit. If these people have tried multiple times to quit on their own, however, they may be convinced that they simply don’t have the ability to stop abusing nicotine, and they may be overwhelmed with feelings of sadness and inadequacy as they realize that many of their attempts to stop have been met with failure.
People who don’t struggle with their own addictions may have the mistaken belief that these substances can be conquered if people simply choose to quit and then find the willpower to make that decision stick. While it would be ideal if addictions could be conquered so easily, there are multiple complicating factors that could stand in the way between an addicted person and a full and complete recovery. For example, nicotine addictions seem to blossom when people are under intense stress. They begin to lean on their tobacco habits in order to help them relax, and their usage rates may begin to surge. While it’s clear that people who are using increased levels of an addictive substance should be approached, these same people might react with hostility or anger when they’re confronted during a period of stress.
Nicotine has also been associated with underlying mental illnesses. For example, a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that severely mentally ill people were much more likely to be addicted to nicotine than people who did not have mental illnesses. This association was particularly strong for schizophrenia, but depression, personality disorders or anxiety disorders have also been associated with nicotine abuse in the past. For some people, the chemical changes in the brain caused by nicotine abuse tend to bring the mental illnesses about. For others, the nicotine seems to be an effective method for handling the mental illness issue. These people might be particularly susceptible to feelings of hostility or anger when they’re approached about their nicotine abuse. They’re trying to cope with multiple issues at once, and confrontations don’t allow them to feel supported or helped.
People with complicating factors, or people who have a prior history of angry outbursts or violent acts, should be confronted with the help of a professional. An interventionist can step in if the talk becomes too stressful or upsetting, or if people become tempted to say things or do things they don’t mean while they’re discussing this important issue. People who know that they have a tobacco problem, and who have a history of listening carefully when they’re spoken to by their family members, might be able to go through an intervention without professional help. It’s a personal decision the family members can make as a team, before they begin holding their talk.Interventions provide family members with the opportunity to outline their experience with the addiction and encourage the addicted person to accept needed treatment help. Using examples is encouraged, so the person can understand all of the ways in which the addiction is harming the family and what the family would like to see happen as treatment moves forward.It might also be helpful for the family to include at least a few examples of how treatment might be useful in the fight against nicotine addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 85 percent of smokers who try to quit on their own relapse to use, and most do so within one week. This statistic suggests that most families confronting a nicotine-addicted person are confronting someone who has tried to quit in the past and failed. These people might be encouraged to learn about treatment options that could be helpful.Nicotine replacement products, including patches and gum, can help to reduce cravings to use and could make a quitting attempt successful. Similarly, antidepressant medications could help to ease the symptoms of distress faced by people who attempt to stop using. Therapy and support group meetings could also put the person in touch with other people who have dealt with their addiction issues, and this could also lead to a successful quitting attempt.
We Can Help
The New England Journal of Medicine reports that one in five deaths in the United States can be attributed to smoking. It’s clear that this is a deadly addiction, and leaving it in place could be too dangerous to even consider. While holding the conversation might seem difficult, a successful nicotine addiction intervention could provide an addicted person with a sense of hope. Treatment works, and an intervention could be the best way to get that important message across.
If you need to hold an intervention for someone you know but you’re not quite sure where to start, please contact us. We can provide you with an interventionist who can help you start the conversation, or we can give you some information on treatment programs you can highlight in your own intervention. When you need help, we’re here for you. Just call our toll-free line to get started.