Why is It so Difficult to Quit Smoking?

S. Scolari

It is difficult to quit smoking tobacco products for three main reasons. First is the addictive power of nicotine, a chemical compound found naturally in tobacco leaves. People who have been smoking for a long time actually become dependent on this compound, and their brains trigger a number of adverse effects when it isn’t present. Second, people often smoke as a matter of routine or habit, and giving up can be hard because it requires a change of pattern — and in some cases also a change of friends or social venues. Quitting also usually triggers physical withdrawal symptoms that can last a long time. There are frequently a number of psychological reasons that go along with all of this, too. Smokers often light up when they’re stressed, for instance, and giving up often means finding new tactics. There are a number of different products people can buy to help them quit, including nicotine patches and gums; therapy and support groups are also beneficial for many people.

Anger and other withdrawal symptoms make quitting smoking difficult.
Anger and other withdrawal symptoms make quitting smoking difficult.

Chemical Properties of Nicotine

Addiction is one of the biggest challenges for people looking to quit. Nicotine is a stimulant drug that occurs naturally in the roots and leaves of the tobacco plant, and its presence a big reason why smoking these leaves is so popular: the drug makes people feel good, and can relieve tension and stress, at least in the short term. It also has the ability to impair nerve function, however, and can alter brain chemistry such that certain levels of it are actually required to function at levels that were once “normal.”

Like many repetive habits, smoking can be an incredibly difficult habit to break.
Like many repetive habits, smoking can be an incredibly difficult habit to break.

Nicotine is known chemically as C10H14N2. People inhale it when they smoke cigarettes, cigars, and other similar products, and from there it enters the bloodstream pretty quickly. It travels through the heart and to the brain, where it triggers generally pleasant sensations. Over months and years, these centers of the brain become accustomed to receiving and processing the drug, and people will begin to crave it if they don’t have it. Over time most people build up a tolerance to the drug, too, which means that they need to smoke more to get the same effects. In this sense, the longer a person waits, the harder it will likely be to quit.

Nicotine gum can help with quitting smoking.
Nicotine gum can help with quitting smoking.

Importance of Routine and Habit

For many people, smoking is also simply a way of life — it’s a habit, and like all habits, it can be hard to break. Most researchers agree that the longer a person does something or depends on a certain thing or substance, the harder it is to let go. The effects are usually most profound where chemicals are concerned, but other dependencies or learned behaviors can also fall within this category. People who always do something a certain way, or who always do two things together, often have a hard time changing their patterns.

Nicotine is considered just as addictive as cocaine.
Nicotine is considered just as addictive as cocaine.

Anyone who has smoked for a long time probably has rituals that go along with their habit. They may always smoke in certain venues, for instance, or with certain people; smoking while doing certain activities like drinking alcohol or watching television is also common. Coming up with replacement rituals or simply going without can take a lot of willpower and determination.

Nicotine is believed to be as mentally addictive as heroin.
Nicotine is believed to be as mentally addictive as heroin.

Withdrawal Symptoms and Cravings

Physical withdrawal is also a big reason why quitting is so difficult. In a lot of ways this goes hand in hand with the chemical aspects of the addiction in the first place. When a person’s brain is accustomed to getting certain levels of nicotine every day, tapering off or quitting can cause not just cravings for more, but also adverse physical reactions. People often begin feeling sick or nauseous; trembling, headaches, and insomnia are also common. Depending on how long the smoking has been going on, these symptoms can last for several weeks.

Withdrawal symptoms can begin within hours of a smoker's last cigarette.
Withdrawal symptoms can begin within hours of a smoker's last cigarette.

Psychological Aspects

The psychological aspects of nicotine addiction can persist for much longer. Smokers frequently return to the habit when under stress, for example. They may also return to it as a form of weight control; nicotine often acts as an appetite suppressant, and people often find that they eat more and thus gain more weight when they stop smoking.

A chemical found in tobacco leaves, nicotine is a stimulant that is addictive, giving the user feelings of pleasure during use and those of withdrawal when trying to quit.
A chemical found in tobacco leaves, nicotine is a stimulant that is addictive, giving the user feelings of pleasure during use and those of withdrawal when trying to quit.

Tips and Tricks for Cutting Back

Most people find that they can’t quit smoking unless they really want it, and the exercise often takes a lot of work and motivation. Certain prescription drugs can help alleviate some of the worst side effects and cravings, and many people also find that it helps to slowly wean off of nicotine rather than quitting all at once. Nicotine patches that people can wear like adhesive bandages are often helpful, as these can deliver controlled amounts of the drug into a person’s blood; special chewing gums can do the same thing.

Some people also find that talking through their struggles with others is a good way to manage cravings and the stress that goes along with them. Some therapists offer counseling sessions and support groups for people trying to quit. Committing to get together with friends who are in a similar position or who are empathetic can also be helpful for many.

Withdrawal symptoms when a person quits smoking will be both mental and physical.
Withdrawal symptoms when a person quits smoking will be both mental and physical.

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Discussion Comments


Thanks for sharing your article! I am of the view that, contrary to popular belief, the nicotine and chemical elements do not cause a strong enough deterrent to quit smoking. Your mindset, willpower, and the nature of your habit do.

The physical and chemical reaction, or the psychological urge is really a slight signal in the mind, causing people to turn to the comforting habit of smoking again. If you have strong enough desire to quit smoking, there are a few tricks that can be utilized to easily switch-off those feelings or urges.

People have been using this method in one way or another and enjoyed the success of being able to quit smoking. It is a lifelong process that they will learn to love, as they feel a strong sense of empowerment and pride when they succeed. -- M. Man


@SauteePan -I think a support group is a great idea because there you can talk to people who know exactly how you feel and are experiencing similar things.

This really helps to lessen the loneliness that you feel when you encounter an addiction like this. When you see that are people have the same problem that you have you somehow feel a little better.

Quitting smoking is a long term goal that should involve everyone in your life. If everyone is aware of your goal they will help you support it. I think that that is the best way to quit smoking.

I also think that if you are scared that you might be more motivated to stop. I saw a television program in which a man that had been smoking for 20 years stopped smoking because he saw the x-ray of a patient that was a lifelong smoker.

This scared him enough to finally stop. Sometimes it takes a drastic measure like that to get someone started. They do say that fear is an effective motivator sometimes and it does help some people quit smoking for good.


@Crispety -I think that the person has to want to stop smoking. They really can’t do something like this for someone else. I agree that seeing a therapist will help and I know that many states have toll free hotlines that are manned twenty four hours a day to offer support for people to quit smoking.

I think this is great because not everyone has the time or the money to see a therapist and some people might be embarrassed with the face to face contact, but may not have a problem talking to someone over the phone.

There are a lot of products on the market that can help a person quit smoking but they also need to develop a strong support system because during the moments when they are the weakest is when they will reach for that cigarette.

I also think that people have to forgive themselves if they do have a momentary lapse because the importance really is to develop progress towards quitting not to expect perfection because the all are nothing approach will doom anyone looking to quit smoking.

There will be pitfalls but you just have to bounce back from them and this will give you confidence to continue.


@MrSnuff - I didn't know that.I think that the best way to quit smoking for good has to involve a comprehensive approach. I think that I would go see a doctor in order to get a prescription for medication that could help me quit smoking cigarettes but I also feel that another component to quit smoking involves cognitive behavioral therapy.

Since there is also a psychological components to this addiction a therapist can help the person addicted to cigarettes try to find alternative activities that the person can engage in when they experience the desire to smoke.

Sometimes the therapist will ask the patient to fill out a daily journal because this will help her determine what the emotional triggers that causes them to want the cigarette are.

Sometimes a person will want a cigarette to reduce stress or some other form of discomfort. The therapist could then tell the patient to go for a walk or jump rope vigorously in order to halt the cravings for the cigarettes.

It is really a long process and sometimes the addicted person has to practice what to do ahead of time so that they will be prepared when faced with a potential smoking dilemma.


Try nasal snuff to quit smoking. The success rate is around 74% versus the nicotine patch at 14%.

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