Chemical warfare: would-be non-smoker vs nicotine

By Chloé Taylor-Blais

At age 15, I lit up my first cigarette. It was Grade 9 and when my friend Megan asked me to sneak out of science class and meet her in the bathroom for a smoke, I went. It wasn’t as gross as expected and it wasn’t long before I was lighting up at the bus stop and climbing out my bedroom window to perch on the ledge for a secret puff. Between classes, guess who became a regular in the student smoking area? Yes. There was a Student Smoking Area. It had signs. It had a bench and ashtrays. It had all the cool kids hanging out, smokers or not.
Cool? Not anymore. For those who have never smoked, I offer a personal tour of addiction. Beyond the Student Smoking Area, let me introduce you to the Panic Zone. Panic when you don’t have a lighter. Panic when you have only one cigarette left. Panic when you are stressed and can’t smoke because you’re at work/a restaurant/the movies, on the bus/patio/beach, in the park/municipal building/shopping mall. Panic when you think about what smoking is doing to your lungs, not to mention your face. Panic over smelling like an ashtray. Panic at the idea of accidentally setting your car, apartment or face on fire. Your body vibrates during a craving, your brain starts rationalizing (“Just one more. It’s okay, I’ll quit eventually”) and you worry, worry, worry.
The battle is not merely mind over matter; it is chemical warfare now. As the Canadian Cancer Society reports, nicotine triggers the release of the feel-good hormone and neurotransmitter dopamine. Within 10 seconds of smoking a cigarette, the nicotine level in blood goes up, dopamine release is triggered and the brain and central nervous system speed up, making a smoker feel calm, alert and happy. Over time, the brain adjusts to this stimulation and a smoker can feel the effects of lower nicotine levels within hours. Smoking no longer provides an increase in good feelings and energy, but is required to simply feel normal.
Without a nicotine fix, it’s not long before you can experience feelings of depression, anger, listlessness and anxiety. Although you know the health risks of smoking and you understand quitting would be beneficial for you and those around us, it isn’t an easy option. After all, your brain chemistry is out of balance.
Still, people do stop and do stay smoke-free. There are many nicotine replacement therapies on the market, as well as other quitting aides. You can try hypnosis, nicotine gum, the nicotine patch and the good old fashioned teeth- gritting, kicking-and-screaming cold turkey route. There is also a relatively new product on the market that, while controversial, may hold promise for people who are chemically addicted to nicotine and motivated to butt out. Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, don’t contain tobacco or any of the dangerous chemicals found in traditional cigarettes, other than nicotine. A lithium battery connected to an atomizer heats nicotine liquid and converts it into a vapour that is inhaled and exhaled much like smoke. The liquid used, typically propylene glycol, is approved by Health Canada, although the nicotine in the liquid is not. E-cigarette users are pushing for an update in Health Canada regulation.

Controversy aside, e-cigarettes have worked for me. I have tried three versions, with ever improving results. At first I used one that looked just like a cigarette and went from smoking 15 or 20 cigarettes a day to one or two, without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. I soon graduated to an easier-to-fill version with a longer battery life. At this point I have stopped smoking cigarettes and am gradually reducing the nicotine in my vape liquid. Eventually I’ll be weaned off completely and able to say I am a non-smoker.
Without question, most smokers I know want to stop. As you can imagine, all the negative talk about people who light up makes you feel guilty and stressed; consequently, you smoke more rather than less. When people really support you to break the habit, you are more motivated to proceed.
If you’re a non-smoker, I hope understanding how the addiction works will help you support your friends who are trying to quit. I hope Health Canada gets involved in regulation of electronic cigarettes. I hope to finally correct the mistake I made as a teenager. Most of all, I hope by this time next year I will be a non-smoker.
For details on ways to quit smoking, see

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