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Ask the Health Coach: The 411 on tobacco

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  • Written By: Rachel Wilde, PBT, CPT, MA

I recently had a client ask me, “Why is using tobacco so addictive, and what are the chemicals in my cigarettes that cause the addiction?”

I honestly had a difficult time completely answering his question, which is what piqued my interest in writing this article. As a health coach, I often work with clients trying to quit tobacco, and through their experiences I’ve seen how complicated quitting can be. To answer my client, this is some of what I’ve learned.

Addiction is defined as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice, or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.” I find that often my clients who are trying to quit do feel like they are a slave to their habit and that it drives many of the decisions they make through their day, influencing more than just their tobacco use. Normal activities such as eating, sleeping and socializing are all influenced by tobacco use.

Most tobacco users know about nicotine, the primary addictive agent in tobacco. Nicotine is naturally found in tobacco and when ingested, works with chemicals in the brain that elevate mood. It works similarly to other addictive drugs causing a surge in dopamine and adrenaline the brain’s “be happy drug,” also causing a small surge in heart rate and blood pressure. Nicotine is easily absorbed by the body and works quickly. Adversely, it also wears off quickly, causing the user to feel uncomfortable and want more.

Complicating tobacco dependence, most tobacco users start using tobacco as adolescents, (most commonly between the ages of 11 and 13). This is a critical stage for forming lifestyles, social practices and habits that stick with us well into adulthood. According to many studies, the younger a tobacco user starts, the more likely they are to be addicted to nicotine and the more difficult it will be to quit. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 90% of all adult smokers began using tobacco before leaving their teens.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse studied adolescent rats to simulate the addiction of teens to tobacco. Acetaldehyde, a chemical found in tobacco, increases nicotine’s addictive properties specifically in adolescent animals but not adults. This may help to explain why tobacco use as a teen is especially dangerous and addictive. Interestingly, acetaldehyde is also produced during alcohol metabolism and is believed to contribute to alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as hangovers.

Finally, today’s tobacco is not the same as tobacco manufactured for consumption years ago, in fact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says there are over 93 harmful chemicals in cigarettes, including lead, benzene and ammonia. The National Center for Biotechnology Information ran a study about today’s tobacco products. It reports: “Our findings indicated that more than 100 of 599 documented cigarette additives have pharmacological actions that camouflage the odor of environmental tobacco smoke emitted from cigarettes, enhance or maintain nicotine delivery, could increase the addictiveness of cigarettes, and mask symptoms and illnesses associated with smoking behaviors.”

To learn more about the chemicals in tobacco plants, the manufacture of tobacco products, the chemicals in cigarette products or the chemicals in cigarette smoke, check out the Chemicals in Cigarettes: From Plant to Product to Puff page on the FDA website.

If you want help quitting tobacco use, check out the Wyoming Quit Tobacco Program.

Have Questions?

Campbell County Health Wellness works to reduce health risks and promote overall wellness among employee groups and individuals across the northeastern Wyoming region. At Wellness, you can receive daily community blood draws, lab tests, and health and wellness screenings in Gillette, Wyoming. To learn more about Wellness, please visit or call 307.688.8051.

This blog was written by Rachel Wilde, PBT, CPT, MA, CCH Wellness Services Technician and PhlebotomistThis blog was written by Rachel Wilde, PBT, CPT, MA, CCH Wellness Services Technician and Phlebotomist

  • Category: Wellness