FEATURE: Taking a scientific approach to quitting smoking

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

With millions set to stub out their igarettes today for No Smoking Day, freelance writer James Waller-Davies tries to understand the science of nicotine addiction and 25 years of his failing to quit smoking.

‘Roll up! Roll up! Find the lady! Come on ladies and gentlemen, don’t be shy.”

We all know it: the old three card street swindle. And we’re all smart enough to know it’s a con.

How about if I make it easier for you? Make it just two cards – interested now?

What if I told you that if you don’t find the lady, you’re going to die early? You’d have to be crazy to even think about it. And yet, that’s what happens for anyone who starts smoking: cigarettes kill half the people who use them.

I’m just one of numerous smokers trying to give up. I’m already in a minority though – I’m one of the 10 per cent who make it to the end of the first month.

Six out of every seven who try to give up will crack within the first week. So why does someone who has smoked for 25 years decide to give up now? And why is giving up smoking so difficult?

Let’s go back a bit. I didn’t hate smoking. I enjoyed it – actually, I loved it. First cup of coffee in the morning; reading the paper; beer of an evening – a nice cigarette went well with all of them. (Some of you are doing this right now.)

There was the first-cuppa-of-the-day cigarette. The driving-to-work cigarette. The take-a-break cigarette. The after-dinner cigarette. The watching-the-telly cigarette. The last-one-before-bedtime cigarette.

I didn’t need a watch: every moment of my day was timed with tobacco.

But nothing, as they say, is as good as it seems. What I was starting to not like was feeling out of breath when I was doing simple things, like going up stairs, or walking past the end of the lane.

My lungs were starting to produce something rather brown, greasy and disgusting. Getting rid of it meant turning my throat into a waste disposal unit working in reverse. I sounded like a broken espresso machine coughing and spluttering out its last.

There was nothing to say I was actually dying, but I was pretty sure 25 years before when I started smoking I hadn’t picked up the card with the lady on the other side.

There was also no reason to believe that I had any genetic advantage either.

I don’t come from a family of 80-a-day puffers till the day they died in their nineties. I’m already two years older than my father who died of one heart attack too many at the age of 42.

His brother, my uncle, died of a massive heart attack in the back seat of the car on the way to his birthday party, the birthday cake uncut on his lap. My younger brother has angina and one heart attack in the bag already.

The death-stats for smoking are amazing in their predictability. If the odds were the same for horse racing you wouldn’t get a bet at the bookies: it’s far too close to a ‘dead cert’. Even money says you’ll die early.

This is why I decided to give up now. A ‘no brainer’ – even if it has been the same ‘no brainer’ for the last 25 years.

Understanding how nicotine addiction works has helped me give up at the start.

(I’m going to use some neuroscience names here, but stick with me).

Nicotine’s chemical structure is very similar to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that pass information around the brain so that your brain can tell your body to do things. Think of them as being keys to locks.

To go through the door you need a key.

Nicotine addiction is based on the fact that nicotine – just like acetylcholine - opens the locked door to the movement of dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s main reward chemical – it’s your brain’s way of giving you a ‘jolly well done’ pat on the back and giving you a treat. Your brain is training you in the same way a dog trainer rewards a puppy with a biscuit for sitting, fetching, or rolling over.

When the puppy doesn’t get the biscuit, or the brain doesn’t get its dopamine, they’re not happy. Every time the body wants a cigarette it opens the dopamine door in your brain. No cigarette, no dopamine. That’s what a craving is: the brain wanting dopamine, not nicotine.

The brain remembers the times you’ve given it reward from smoking: with cups of coffee, having a break, driving, after dinner, watching telly. Whenever you do these things it opens up the dopamine door. Puppy wants a biscuit. To stop smoking then, you need to change as many of the things you do when you smoke.

How long will it take? Not as long as you might think – 90 per cent of the nicotine in your body will have gone within two weeks. Getting through the first couple of weeks is the key.

For the first two weeks I changed the way I had my coffee. I didn’t drink any alcoholic drinks either. I even sat in a different chair in the kitchen. I changed as many things that I could that would stop my brain opening up those dopamine doors. I retrained the puppy.

Am I a non-smoker now? No, of course not. The best I can be is an ex-smoker.

But the health benefits after just one month are good enough to keep me going.

So far...

Quitting smoking: health benefits in the first two weeks:

8 hours: carbon monoxide starts to leave the body

1 day: heart attack risk already falling

4 days: throat phlegm clears - breathing easier

1 week: more energy; taste and smell better

2 weeks: chemical addiction to smoking is over