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Tobacco Addiction

Many students would not put tobacco in the same category as drugs such as heroin or cocaine. However, researchers on drug abuse and addiction say tobacco is as addictive and deadly as any other psychoactive drugs; the reason people do not put it in the same category is that it is more familiar and its damage occurs more slowly.

Tobacco has a worse potential for addic­tion (capture ratio) than many other ad­dictive drugs (Tobacco 33%, Heroin 23%, Cocaine 17%, Alcohol 15%). Stat­istics show that a tobacco addiction is just as hard to quit as other addictions ((Iversen, Iversen, Bloom, and Roth, 2008).

Tobacco is the most widespread addiction in the world and the foremost preventable cause of death in many societies. In the United States, tobacco-related illnesses kill seven times more people each year than traffic accidents.

How does tobacco compare to other addictions?

Once a person is addicted to tobacco, smoking improves motor performance and memory. It reduces anxiety, in­creases tolerance of pain, and reduces hunger.

The effect of smoking tobacco is quick and easily controlled. As Blakeslee (1984) put it, "Within seven seconds of puffing a cigarette, a quarter of the nicotine in inhaled smoke enters the brain. The delivery is quick and hits like a spike."

The 23rd Surgeon General's report on tobacco and health, released in 1994, made the following points about tobacco use in the United States:

—Most people first try tobacco before graduating from high school.

—Most young smokers are addicted to nicotine and report that they want to quit but cannot.

—Tobacco is a "gateway sub­stance" since it is often the first drug used by young people who go on to use alcohol and illegal drugs.

—Young people with poorer grades and lower self-images are most likely to use tobacco,

—Cigarette advertising appears to increase young people's risk of smoking by sending the message that smoking has social benefits and is far more common than it really is. (DeAngelis, 1994)

Why do young people start smoking, if it is so dangerous? The primary reason is to be "cool" in the eyes of their peers.

What points did the United States Surgeon General make, about tobacco use?

Advertising by tobacco companies may play a big role in this. The most-smoked brands of cigarettes are those that are advertised most heavily.

Why would tobacco companies target young people?

Tobacco companies deny targeting young people, but they know the statistics. If a person does not start smoking by the age of 20, that person is unlikely ever to start. Therefore, if tobacco companies want to replenish the constantly diminishing pool of tobacco smokers, they must recruit from the ranks of younger people.

The graph below, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 2016, shows smoking trends in the U.S. Adult smoking has declined continuously, but teenage smoking peaked around the time of the Surgeon General's report (above), then declined rapidly after that.

Graph shows declining smoking in U.S.
A 2016 graph from the CDC shows smoking rates fell steadily then leveled off.

The decline in smoking in the U.S. can be attributed to multiple causes. Public health campaigns discouraged smoking. Stores, restaurants, and institutions like universities proclaimed themselves "smoke-free." Smoking became associated with poorer and less educated people, tarnishing its image.

What does smoking data from the U.S. show? What approach is Russia proposing?

In many other countries, tobacco smoking continues at a high rate. In China, tobacco is an increasing burden on the health care system, and officials are starting to take measures against it.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin, a nonsmoker, signed a law banning smoking in public places in 2014. Another law proposed in 2017 would ban smoking altogether for those born after 2015.


Blakeslee, S. (1984, December 25). Smoking depicted as an addiction with many lures. New York Times, Y11,12.

DeAngelis, T. (1994, April). Psychologists' expertise key to report on smoking. APA Monitor, p.36.

Iversen, L., Iversen, S., Bloom, F. E., & Roth, R. H. (2008) Introduction to Neuropharmacology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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