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"I became a regular smoker at 17 after first trying weed," Margiet shared.
Tom's dad smoked, as did many of his mates, so he quite naturally picked the habit up at 16.
Helen's relationship with nicotine began when she was 13, after a boyfriend introduced her.
Their stories have got to sound familiar to anyone who's ever smoked. Smoking rates have been declining, but around 3,200 United States teens will still light up their first cigarette today, while about 2,000 of their peers will go from the occasional puff to a daily smoking habit.
Can we blame underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, that make smoking appear both grown-up and edgy? Plain old peer pressure, society, advertising, misinformation?
Whatever gets a particular person into cigarettes to begin with, we all know what they're not thinking when they take that first drag: "Ah, this is the start of a life-long addiction to something that's eventually going to kill me slowly and painfully, after many years of wishing I could stop but finding out that the old saying that quitting nicotine is no easier than quitting heroin really is true."
"The first cigarette was beyond disappointing," Helen shared. "Why, I asked myself, do people do this? There was no buzz, no high, no nothing — just a disgusting taste. Learning to appreciate cigarettes took time. The time it took to get addicted."
Nobody knows exactly what they are getting into when they smoke their first cigarette. They don't know that a puff will turn into a cigarette, that a cigarette will turn into a pack, and that a pack will turn into countless packs.
Relapsing smokers, however, are different. Those who have already quit before, sometimes for many years, only to decide (and make not mistake: it is a decision) to light up again ought to know better.
How Nicotine Addiction Works
When you lit up that first cigarette (or, in some cases, another nicotine-delivery method such as chewing or vaping), something unprecedented happened in your brain: you introduced nicotine, which is, by the way, the tobacco plant's natural defense system against pests, to your system. As you continued using nicotine, your body grew used to some pretty complex processes.
Nicotine introduces a "fight or flight" situation to your body, binding to your fast-acting acetylcholine receptors and tricking it into thinking something big is happening. While your heart beats faster and your blood vessels are being constricted, the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotinin and dopamine start messing with your brain. Once your brain is used to the presence of nicotine, something that can happen rather rapidly, you'll start "going crazy" when you haven't had a smoke for a whole; you get a craving. It's not that nicotine inherently makes you feel better, it's that its lack makes addicts feel terrible, and reintroducing it to the system makes them believe that smoking takes their stress away.
Remain a smoker, and a Pavlovian bond will form between you and cigarettes. Whether that morning coffee, that work break, meeting those mates at the pub, feeling stressed, or that after-sex glow makes you want to have a smoke largely depends on the situations in which you used nicotine.
When you quit smoking, nicotine will be out of your system within 72 hours, and your physical addiction will be on its way out. Your brain is a powerful machine, however, and the Pavlovian bond is much harder to break. You get used to not smoking in certain situations by not smoking in those situations; you're retraining your brain, basically. Not all situations happen every day, though. Years after quitting, the death of a friend, your father's lung cancer diagnosis, or that new boyfriend who smokes, make reignite that old spark.