Disputing myths about smoking

Do you believe in any of the myths about smoking/quitting? Take a critical look.

No smoking

Nicotine is addictive. As such, the truth about the effects of tobacco as well as accurate information about quitting are often overshadowed by myths. These myths are often propagated by the tobacco industry through advertising, marketing, product placement and other tactics. A smoker may use these myths to justify continuing to smoke. In order to effectively quit smoking, a person needs to break down their “nicotine filter” and critically examine these myths. Here are a few common myths about tobacco and the reasons why they are a myth.

Myth: "The consequences of continuing to smoke won’t happen to me"

The pleasure/reward center of the brain of a smoker enjoys being stimulated by nicotine. Any attempt to stop giving nicotine to the brain will be blocked. One way this happens is that a “nicotine filter” is created, where the brain entertains only information that supports continued smoking, and ignores (or rationalizes away) information that supports the quit. For many smokers, this rationalization takes the form of “These bad things won’t happen to me” or “I’m different”. The truth is that the toxins in tobacco smoke are not selective. Half of regular tobacco users will die of smoking related causes. There is no way to predict who will die and who won’t. Also, the vast majority of regular tobacco users will experience negative consequences (including disability, illness and decreased quality of life) related to tobacco use. It is not reasonable to believe that one person is not vulnerable to these consequences while others are.

Myth: "Smoking helps reduce stress"

Smoking does not reduce stress. In fact, it causes stress. The brain of a smoker is addicted to nicotine, and when nicotine levels in the brain drop (which begins as soon as a smoker puts out a cigarette) the brain starts “demanding” more. This is experienced by the smoker as irritability and stress. In essence, not smoking creates stress. Of course, as soon as the smoker takes a puff, the brain gets nicotine and stops “asking” for it. This is interpreted by the smoker as stress relief. Also, stress is a stimulating experience. Blood pressure, muscle tension, heart rate and respiration increase when a person experiences stress. Tobacco also stimulates the body by increasing blood pressure and heart rate; therefore, it doesn’t relieve stress. Finally, deep breathing is an effective short-term, relaxation strategy that can be used to manage stress. Every time a smoker takes a “drag” they breathe deeply and this may be another reason why a person thinks that it relieves stress. The truth is that nicotine does not create a “high”, it temporarily removes a low! 

Myth: "Smoking is unhealthy, but a lot of other things are just as bad for you."

Tobacco use is responsible for 45,000 Canadian deaths each year, and many, many more suffer from terrible health problems because of it. Smoking is far, far worse than other health hazards. As one researcher put it “cigarette smoking remains the number one preventable cause of death in Canada and its impact on the health of Canadians continues to be an unacceptable burden.”  Half of the people who smoke will die of smoking related causes. Not very good odds!! Sure, you may be “hit by a bus” any day, as they say, but you usually look both ways before you cross the street. You don’t intentionally put yourself in harm’s way. Choosing to smoke and choosing not to quit is putting yourself in harm’s way.

Myth: "I'll gain weight if I quit."

Research indicates that most people do not gain weight when they quit smoking. Those who do gain weight usually gain less than 3 kilograms. Most people who gain weight after quitting will lose it. Research shows that, on average, people who smoke gain weight as they age. Research also confirms that there is no difference in the average weight of ex-smokers compared to smokers, therefore, quitting smoking is not associated with significant weight gain. Also, the coping strategies that you build to quit smoking are the exact same ones you can use to manage weight. Many people find that when they quit smoking they also adopt other health-enhancing behaviors such as better nutrition and increased physical activity, both of which contribute to achieving a healthy weight.

Myth: "I'm young. I'll quit in the next few years."

The vast majority of people who smoke started before the age of 20. Most young people who smoke daily don't expect to continue smoking, but most are still smoking five years later and beyond. Being young does not make a person immune to becoming addicted. Nicotine is a very addictive substance. Don’t get caught up in the belief that you will be able to quit whenever you want.  Now is the time to stop.

Myth: "Smoking looks sexy."

Or at least, that's what the tobacco industry would like you to think. Smoking causes deep wrinkles and sagging skin (not very sexy). Yellow teeth and skin, gum disease and tooth loss are some of the effects of smoking (not very sexy). The smell of tobacco on a person is distasteful to most people (not very sexy). And, as non-smokers can tell you, kissing someone who smokes is not tasty, let alone sexy. Men who smoke are at a greater risk of erectile dysfunction. In both men and women, those who smoke have sex less often and rate sex as less enjoyable. Studies reveal that smokers are rated as less attractive than non-smokers. Research also indicates that both women and men find confidence, intelligence, sense of humour, cleanliness and a healthy body to be the qualities they find most attractive in a partner. Smoking is not consistent with most of these qualities.

Myth: "One cigarette won't hurt"

There is a saying in the smoking cessation world that states “You’re a puff away from a pack-a-day." Many people who quit smoking hope for a day when they can have “just one." This is not an option for a person who is struggling with an addiction. Would you suggest that it is OK for a recovering heroin addict to do just a little bit of heroin? Or what about a recovering alcoholic to have just one drink? Of course not. Having “just one” stimulates the nicotine receptors in the brain, and the addiction can take hold again. A person may also feel guilty or shameful after “breaking down”, and this contributes to a negative emotional state of mind that can lead to continued use. The research on social smokers demonstrates that many don’t remain social smokers in the long-term. Occasional smokers either become regular smokers or stop using tobacco altogether.

Myth: "I smoke light cigarettes/I only smoke a little, so it's not so bad"

"Light" cigarettes contain the same harmful compounds as regular cigarettes, including lead, ammonia, benzene, DDT, butane gas, carbon monoxide, arsenic, and polonium 210. People who smoke light cigarettes try to obtain more nicotine by inhaling deeper or smoking more. The result: smokers of light cigarettes tend to have lung cancer lower in the lungs. There is no such thing as a safe cigarette. Also, smoking just a little is related to significant negative health effects. Research reveals that even "occasional" (less-than-daily) smoking, smoking only a few cigarettes per day, or smoking "without inhaling" can increase a person’s risk of heart disease and shorten their life. Another problem with smoking "just a little" is that most people can't do it for long. Soon, they find themselves smoking every day, several times a day; and the more they smoke, the more they damage their health.

Myth: "The best way to quit is cold turkey"

Again, smoking is an addiction. Effectively quitting requires a plan, which includes building and rehearsing skills to cope with negative emotions. Your attitude towards smoking is an important factor in quitting. If you see quitting as a deprivation you will likely not remain smoke-free. You will probably “white-knuckle” your way through the urges to smoke. You can’t keep doing that forever: eventually you will be worn down. On the other hand, if you see quitting as the best gift you can give yourself, quitting and remaining smoke-free will be easier. Some people are successful at quitting cold turkey. These people have usually given a lot of thought to how tobacco fits with their values and beliefs and have decided that there is no role for tobacco in their life. The best way to quit is to understand nicotine addiction, to adopt a positive attitude to smoke-free living and to build skills to manage the negative emotions created by nicotine withdrawal.

Myth: "It's easy to quit smoking"

There are many reasons why individuals smoke. Even though many know the effects that smoking can have on their health, this doesn't discourage them or make it any easier for them to stop. This is because they are addicted to nicotine. When experts in the field of addiction consider physiological and psychological factors, nicotine addiction is rated stronger than heroin, cocaine, and all the other substances of abuse. Cigarette manufacturers have spent a tremendous amount of money and time to study tobacco, and they have modified their product to make it more addictive. It’s good business for them when people become addicted. They work hard to get people smoking and keep them smoking. Quitting requires a focused effort. Although it can be difficult to quit smoking, quitting can be easier by approaching it with a plan and a positive attitude.

Myth: "I enjoy smoking"

A person addicted to nicotine believes that they enjoy smoking; just like a person addicted to alcohol believes they enjoy alcohol, a person addicted to crack believes they enjoy crack, and a person addicted to heroin believes they enjoy heroin. This is the nature of an addiction. It’s not that a person enjoys smoking, rather they don’t feel good when they are not smoking. Smoking becomes such a significant part of an individual's lifestyle that they continue to smoke, not because they enjoy it, but because they feel miserable if they don't.

Myth: "Smoking is cool"

Many young people start smoking because they believe it makes them look cool and more mature, and because their friends smoke. In fact smoking does the opposite. It causes premature aging by drying out the skin and producing wrinkles. Other effects of tobacco use are smelly clothes, smelly hair and breath, and yellow-stained teeth. None of these is perceived as cool by the vast majority of people. There used to be a time when many people thought that smoking was cool. This attitude was promoted by the tobacco industry. This is no longer true. The vast majority of people see tobacco use in a negative light, including people who use tobacco.

Myth: "My smoking doesn't affect anyone else"

It's a free country. If a person wants to smoke, what right does anyone else have to stop them? This is a valid point, and if an individual wants to smoke it is up to them. However, smokers are affecting other people's health by subjecting others to second-hand smoke, which has been linked to a variety of illnesses in non-smokers including lung cancer. Furthermore, much of the tobacco consumed in North America and Europe is farmed in countries where child labor is common. Children turn to picking tobacco to add to the family income and as a result they don’t go to school to receive an education. Therefore, tobacco consumption in North America affects people as far away as Africa and Asia. Forests are being cut down to make fields to grow tobacco and to get wood to process tobacco. This has a negative effect on the environment, including promoting global warming.  Animals, such as birds, accidently eat cigarette butts and die. It has been estimated that up to 40% of garbage on city streets and on the shorelines of the world is tobacco related. These are some of the many reasons indicating how using tobacco affects others and the planet.

Myth: "Only old people die from smoking related diseases"

Although some people die as young as late 20’s or early 30’s, it is true that most of the diseases suffered by smokers occur after the age of 50. These smoking-related illnesses can be long-term, miserable, debilitating and fatal. On the other hand, many individuals suffer from illnesses long before this age, which include gangrene, ulcers and respiratory diseases. The problem is, the earlier an individual starts to smoke and the longer they smoke, the more likely they are to suffer from a smoking-related disease.  Also, smokers suffer more from a wide variety of negative heath effects of smoking, including an increased risk of a cold, the flu, pneumonia and more. In general, smokers at all ages have poorer health than their non-smoking (or ex-smoking) counterparts.

Myth: "I'll quit when I'm pregnant"

It may be harder to get pregnant if you smoke as smoking is linked to infertility. If you smoke during pregnancy you have an increased chance of miscarriage and complications during pregnancy. Numerous research studies indicate that the development of the fetus is negatively affected by the compounds in tobacco. Also, there is a higher risk of many problems for the child throughout their life if the mother smokes during pregnancy. It might take you a couple of attempts to actually stop smoking, so your chances of success with quitting are better the earlier you start the quitting process. Many women continue to smoke despite making a promise that they wouldn’t smoke should they become pregnant. 

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