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Where there's smoke, there's a quitter

Concordia researcher comments on how easy it is to quit smoking -- or to take up the habit
January 15, 2013
By Scott McCulloch

With the arrival of a new year, millions of Canadians set new goals to achieve in the coming months. Quitting smoking is among the most common resolutions.

Some surveys report that one in five smokers who tries to quit fails within 24 hours.

A recent British poll of 6,200 current and ex-puffers found that half who turn their backs on smokes give in to smoking within a week.

Why is it so tough to kick the habit? Or easy to start?

“In general, there are major lifestyle changes associated with cessation,” says Simon Racicot, a Concordia PhD candidate in clinical health psychology. “Quitting is not an overnight process.”

Beyond physical cravings, long-term smokers are dogged by psychological barriers, a problem Racicot likens to shedding an identity. “They are not just somebody who smokes. They are smokers,” he says.

Racicot studies the effects of second-hand smoke on Montreal-based teens who have never smoked. His research, supervised by Department of Psychology Associate Professor Jennifer McGrath, might soon explain why certain non-smokers exposed to smoke decide to light up. “They learn from smokers in their environment,” says Racicot, who is currently a resident at London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario. “But could it be that because they’re inhaling nicotine through second-hand smoke, it increases the likelihood they’ll light up their first cigarette during adolescence?”

Six years into his research, Racicot says the data look promising.

“One of the reasons we thought about this idea was that previous researchers have reported that if you’re around smokers a lot, you’re going to have high levels of nicotine in your body.
We know that nicotine sustains the addiction.”

Indeed, American researchers have discovered that nicotine dependence is the most common form of chemical addiction in the U.S. and it may be as addictive as heroin.

Meanwhile, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke were 25 per cent more likely to have coronary heart disease compared with non-smokers not exposed to smoke.

Smoking-related diseases kill an estimated 45,000 Canadians per year.

Here’s another reason to keep that new year’s resolution to kicking the habit:

Contrary to popular perception, smoking does not relieve stress; quitting does, according to a report in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The belief that smoking is stress-relieving is pervasive. The reverse is true: smoking probably causes anxiety, the study authors report.

Anxiety seems a weak motivator to quit, suggests a Statistics Canada study.

Even after Canadians aged 50 and over are diagnosed with chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, they rarely make lifestyle changes to improve their health. Quitting or cutting back on smoking were the changes most commonly reported by StatsCan, although most smokers keep puffing after diagnosis.

Racicot says a high level of motivation is vital to quitting. Benefits of stopping must outweigh the benefits of continuing to smoke. “Sometimes people can stop cold turkey,” he says. “For others, it’s not possible. They have to experience a couple of relapses before they can stop for good.”

Ready to quit? Concordia’s Employee Assistance Program and Health Services offer help to smokers who want to butt out. For information, contact Owen Moran, Health Promotion Specialist, at

Related links:
•    Concordia’s Department of Psychology
•    Concordia’s Health Services
•    Concordia’s Employee Assistance Program
•    “Non-smokers hooked on nicotine” — NOW, June 13, 2011

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