Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90.
Lighting up – it’s psychosocial, not physiological, according to a new Israeli study.

Everyone has been assuming it’s an addiction for years, but now compelling new research from Israel suggests that smokers find it hard to give up cigarettes because they are a habit, not an addiction.

In a new study, Dr. Reuven Dar, of Tel Aviv University, found that the intensity of cravings for cigarettes had more to do with the psychosocial element of smoking than with the physiological effects of nicotine as an addictive chemical.

“These findings might not be popular with advocates of the nicotine addiction theory, because they undermine the physiological role of nicotine and emphasize mind over matter when it comes to smoking,” admits Dar, who published his findings in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Today about 1.35 billion people in the world smoke – that’s about 20 percent of the world’s population. In the US alone, one in five Americans dies of smoking related causes, according to the World Health Organization. Worldwide, someone dies from tobacco use every eight seconds – about five million people annually.

Cravings among flight attendants

Dar and his colleagues based their conclusions on two landmark studies. In the most recent study, the researchers monitored the smoking behavior and craving levels of male and female in-flight attendants working at the Israeli airline El Al.

Each participant was monitored during two flights – a long one of 10 to 13 hours, from Tel Aviv to New York, for example; and a two-hop shorter trip from Israel to Europe and back, each leg lasting three to five hours. Using a questionnaire, Dar and his team sampled craving levels of the attendants throughout their flights.

The researchers discovered that the duration of the flight had no significant impact on craving levels, which were similar for short and long flights. Moreover, craving levels at the end of each short flight were much higher than those at the end of the long flight, showing that cravings increased in anticipation of the flight landing, whatever the flight’s total duration.

Dar and his team, from TAU’s department of psychology, concluded from this that the craving effect is produced by psychological cues rather than by the physiological effects of nicotine deprivation.

No smoking for a day

In an earlier study, which took place in 2005, Dar examined a group of religious Jews who smoked. By religious law, orthodox Jews are forbidden to smoke on the Sabbath. Dar asked them about their smoking cravings on three separate days: the Sabbath, a regular weekday, and a weekday on which they’d been asked to abstain.

Participants were interviewed at the end of each day about their craving levels during that day.

Dar found that cravings were very low on the morning of the Sabbath, when the smoker knew he would not be able to smoke for at least 10 hours, but gradually increased as the day wore on and participants anticipated the first post-Sabbath cigarette.

Craving levels on the weekday on which these people smoked as much as they wanted were just as high as on the day they abstained, showing that craving has little to do with nicotine deprivation.

Dar’s studies suggest that nicotine is not addictive as physiological addictions are usually defined. While nicotine does have a physiological role in increasing cognitive abilities such as attention and memory, it’s not an addictive substance like heroin, which creates true systemic and biologically based withdrawal symptoms in the body of the user, he claims.

Searching for new treatments

Dar believes that people who smoke do so for short-term benefits like oral gratification, sensory pleasure and social camaraderie. Once the habit is established, people continue to smoke in response to cues and in situations that become associated with smoking.

By understanding that smoking is a habit, Dar believes that smokers and health authorities can now look for new kinds of treatment that will be more effective than traditional remedies. Smoking cessation techniques should emphasize the psychological and behavioral aspects of the habit and not the biological aspects, he suggests.

With about 15 billion cigarettes sold daily, a massive 10 million every minute, according to WHO, this is one habit that people must learn to break.

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