Smoking: Habit or Addiction?
by Susan J. Katz
from Visions Journal vol. 3 no. 4 (Spring 2007)
I crouched, face to the floor, my eyes burning badly, straining to breathe. I was six years old and following the procedure for avoiding smoke inhalation that I had learned in elementary school—except this was not an accidental fire emergency. We were cruising home with our car windows rolled up tight because it was winter and too cold to open them, and my parents were both smoking. I hated inhaling the cigarette smoke. But, I accepted smoking as a normal part of what the adults around me did. What else could I do at six? Other things besides cigarette smoke inhalation were a threat for me as a child. I had to accept life in an exceptionally chaotic and abusive family in order to survive. One effect of my traumatic childhood, besides recurrent depression, has been a pervasive feeling of never ‘fitting in’ with others. As a typical teenager, this included the need for peer acceptance and I became a ‘social smoker,’ having the occasional cigarette with friends and trying cigars and a pipe in my bedroom with an adventurous girlfriend. My smoking increased in university; study breaks, social drinking and role models who smoked were added inducements. Living in Alaska was the final boost that got me hooked to the habit. I was 19 and worked on commercial salmon boats. I loved the fresh air, romance and challenge of my adventure—and I already spoke the universal language of smokers. “I need a smoke.” “Want a cigarette?” “Which smokes do you want me to get?” Smoking helped me gain acceptance by the rough, independent fishermen despite the fact that I was a single, young, Jewish, female university student from California working in what I’ve been told is the most dangerous of livelihoods—commercial fishing. I got up to one-and-a-half packs a day. I bought them by the carton and stashed them under the pillow of my ship’s bunk, thinking that I could handle anything as long as that carton lasted. I managed to handle the stress of watching helplessly as a companion’s boat and crew were swept into the sea and drowned. I had to protect myself from threatening approaches by some rough and often jealous men. One boat lost its propeller into the deep, and the engine of another one burned out from too much strain, both in isolated areas of open water. If we hit a big run of salmon, we worked non-stop hauling in fish for two or three days at a time. The peace, space and companionship I gained by taking smoke breaks helped me get through all this. I returned to university with a hard-core tobacco habit that persisted for about three years. But over the last six months of that time, I gradually quit. What was the secret to quitting? I had moved into a new location and had begun graduate school. I now found myself surrounded by people who did not smoke. I don’t recall any of my fellow students, professors or friends as being smokers. As a young woman already insecure about fitting in socially, however, breaking into the traditionally male domain of the mammalogists (biologists who study mammals) was particularly challenging and stressful. But, without the former social inducements to smoke, turning to cigarettes was no longer attractive for me. I developed new ways to find relief from stress: I took up jogging, which was popular with the other students; for a study break I had a coffee or other low-calorie drink; and I joined a western swing dance club and made new friends and had fun. After about six months of new activities and associates, I had tapered down to one or two cigarettes a day. The final kicker was that I preferred spending time with my new non-smoking boyfriend than with a cigarette—I met him at the western swing dance club, and have now been married to for almost 27 years. Then, I just stopped buying cigarettes one day. There were times I really missed the fresh sea spray mixed with the smell and taste of that first drag. But, hey, realistically, I was no longer at sea! A few years later, in a moment of wanting relief from stress, I longingly recalled the sense of fulfillment offered by that first drag and tried a smoke. It was nauseating. I recalled the early memories of choking on smoke on the floor of my parents’ car and wondered how I could ever have smoked as much as I did. I recently chatted with a relative over dinner about a major research project he is managing for a large pharmaceutical company. The goal of the project is to develop a drug that prevents nicotine in a smoker’s blood from stimulating the pleasure sensations in the brain that reinforce nicotine’s addictive aspects. This sounds promising—a ‘vaccine’ that will stop people from smoking. It also raises concerns, such as what side-effects this vaccine may have. And it raises this question: what benefit would a vaccine that targets nicotine addiction have for me, or for others who, like me, smoke for complex behavioural reasons? Physical addiction is a real and serious problem for many smokers. But looking for simple solutions, such as ‘magic bullet’ vaccines or pills that can be aimed at some physiological ‘target’ is not a realistic approach, either. An injection won’t eliminate the other incentives I had for smoking, such as attracting companionship or preventing boredom. Stress is a normal and inevitable part of life, and particularly so for someone with my compromised sense of self-assurance. But, by finding fulfillment with healthier stress reducers such as exercise and refreshing drinks or snacks, by having relationships with people who didn’t smoke and by making productive lifestyle choices, I was able to quit. Susan is a writer and former mental health services consumer. She lives in Vancouver.