You're a single man in your mid-30s and you've been smoking for a remarkable 20 years. You've tried the patch. You've tried nicotine gum. You've even tried hypnosis and prescription drugs. Nothing seems to work, and you're resigned to the fact that you'll be a smoker for the rest of your short life.
Then you meet her -- the perfect woman to spend your days and nights with. She's intelligent, funny, kind and patient. She lights up your life. Not only that -- she lights up your cigarettes; she's a hearty smoker just like you. You buy a "Life is Good" tire cover and you're living the dream.
Then it happens -- she wants to quit smoking. More importantly, she wants you to quit smoking with her. She has romantic notions of living a healthy lifestyle and extending your years together. You fight it, but it's no use. It's the hardest thing you've ever done, but both of you successfully kick the habit. You jog together. You take long walks. You become "those people."
Is it magic that your new life partner has inspired you to do what no patch, pill or stick of gum could ever do? Is it possible that quitting smoking is actually contagious? To answer that, we should first learn a little about nicotine and how it affects the brain.
Nicotine is a liquid alkaloid that occurs naturally in the tobacco plant. Alkaloids are organic compounds made of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and at times, oxygen. In other words, they're chemicals and they have big-time effects on the human body.
When you smoke, your body absorbs about 1 mg of nicotine into the bloodstream. From here, the chemical takes the express train straight to your brain. Nicotine has many effects on the body, including several that make it difficult to quit:
- Heightens activity in cholinergic pathways throughout your brain. Using these pathways, nicotine improves reaction time and focus, making you feel sharper and on the ball.
- Releases dopamine in the reward pathways of your brain. These reward pathways reinforce behaviors that help you survive, like eating and sleeping. Stimulating this area of the brain brings on pleasant feelings that encourage you to do something again. When nicotine activates the reward pathways, it increases your desire to smoke because you feel so happy afterwards. In the end, you reach for the cigarette like a Pavlovian mutt going for the kibble.
- Increases endorphin levels -- small proteins that act as a natural pain killer for the body. An abundance of endorphins can also lead to feelings of euphoria. A "runner's high" is a good example of an endorphin rush.
In the end, nicotine simply makes you want to smoke more. It convinces your body you feel better, which leads to physical and psychological addiction. If you think you feel better when you smoke, it makes it very difficult to quit. Quitting nicotine is a tough thing to do, but a recent study has shown that there may be strength in numbers.
Quitting Smoking Together
Can quitting smoking with another person or group of people improve your chances of success? Dr. Nicholas Christakis and Dr. James Fowler sure think so. They published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine in May 2008 that showed cessation success rates when pairs and groups of people tried to quit together.
The study -- the Framingham Heart Study -- is a federally funded, long-term health research examination of more than 12,000 residents in the Boston, Mass. suburb of -- you guessed it -- Framingham. The health of the people of Framingham was studied over a 32-year period beginning in 1971. Through the supplied contact information, a web of personal ties was established, linking together the participants through their relationships with each other -- friends, co-workers, relatives and neighbors. This web was a key element to carrying out the study of peer influence on smoking cessation. (For more common questions to answers on Smoking Cessation, visit Sharecare.com.)
Out of the 12,000 subjects, there was a roughly 5,000-person subset of smokers, which is about on par with national averages. These 5,000 people had 53,000 social ties with other people in the Framingham study. For the purposes of the study, anyone who smoked more than one cigarette a day was classified as a smoker. The researchers mined information at seven different time points, each about three years apart over a 21-year period. The research indicated that people do tend to successfully quit smoking when giving it a go with another person or group of people.
Not surprisingly, close relationships had the most impact. People with spouses who quit smoking were 67 percent less likely to smoke. With a close friend, those chances move to 36 percent. Co-workers in smaller, more intimate businesses were 34 percent less likely to smoke if a workmate quits. Siblings quitting made the subjects 25 percent less likely to smoke.
The study also confirms that smokers can be influenced by people up to three degrees of separation from themselves. Let's break that down. Say subject "A" is a smoker and he has a friend, subject "B." Subject "B" has a friend, subject "C," who also is a smoker. If subject "A" quits smoking, subject "C" is 29 percent less likely to smoke, even if he doesn't know subject "A" personally. The study even took it one step further, showing that if subject "C" had a friend, subject "D" -- he would be 11 percent less likely to smoke if subject "A" quit. Got all that?
The research also showed that people tend to quit in groups. Smoking clusters formed over the years in Framingham, but as people in the cluster quit, the smokers moved to the outskirts of the social group. These smokers were also more likely to seek out other smokers, forming new clusters.
Some interesting revelations into how education affected smoking cessation were made as well. College educated smokers were more likely to quit than non-college educated smokers, and they were also more inclined to be influenced by educated smokers who had quit.
So what does all of this mean? That undertaking a difficult task is easier to do with the help of someone you love. Nearly 5 million people die each year around the world from smoking-related causes [source: Harvard Univ]. About one-third of these deaths are due to heart disease and stroke -- not a pleasant way to go out.
If you and a friend, relative or spouse smoke, try quitting together. That buddy you take smoke breaks with at work? Give it a go as a team. It's a radical thought, but you could always step out and enjoy some fresh air together instead.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How Nicotine Works
- How Your Lungs Work
- How Heart Attacks and Angina Work
- How Cancer Works
- How Your Brain Works
- How Caffeine Works
- How Marijuana Works
- How Smoke Detectors Work
- 6 Refreshing Tips To Cure Bad Breath
- Are tobacco companies increasing the nicotine content in cigarettes?
- What does the filter on a cigarette do?
- What happens when pregnant women smoke?
- Smoking In-Depth
More Great Links
- "Quitting Smoking Is Contagious." Medical New Today. May 23, 2008. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/108499.php
- "Smoking Causes Nearly 5 Million Deaths Annually Worldwide." Harvard University. September, 12, 2003. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/archives/2003 releases/press09122003.html
- "Smoking cessation is contagious, researchers say." stltoday.com. July 14, 2008. http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/lifestyle/stories.nsf/healthfitness/story/E498C007A4E6AA6586257483006B062F?OpenDocument
- "Smoking Is Addictive, But Quitting Is Contagious." Science Daily. May 22, 2008. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080521171823.htm
- "Study: Friends help friends kick the habit." Associated Press. May 21, 2008. http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/05/21/quitting.smoking.ap/index.html
- Christakis, Nicholas A. M.D and Fowler, James H. Ph.D. "The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network." New England Journal of Medicine. May 22, 2008. http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/short/358/21/2249
- Park, Alice. "Quitting Smoking Is Contagious." Time Magazine. May 21, 2008. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1808446,00.html