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Why Don’t People Just Stop Smoking?

Why Don’t People Just Stop Smoking?

Despite all we know about the health problems caused by using tobacco, people continue to smoke, dip or chew. This can seem baffling.

But knowledge, desire, and determination typically are not enough for most to simply stop smoking. In fact research over the past 25 years has shown that, out of 100 people trying to quit smoking cold turkey, only about 3 to 5 of them will succeed for longer than 6 months. In other words, while some people can quit this way, at least 95% of people can’t.

When you understand the addictive nature of tobacco, it’s easier to understand why many can’t just quit. Here’s a closer look at why many smokers need a specialized cessation program to help them to overcome tobacco addiction.

1: Nicotine dependence

Nicotine offers a lightning quick buzz, traveling from the lungs through the bloodstream to the brain in 10 seconds. As a result, smokers develop a strong association between taking a drag and feeling pleasure. Of course, the buzz doesn’t last. Over time, nicotine can actually change the structure of a smoker’s brain, making it that much tougher for smokers to quit.

To better understand how nicotine changes smokers’ brains, view “Nicotine and the Brain” from the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center.

2: “The smoking habit”

Due to how the brain works, and the quick up take of nicotine through smoking or chewing tobacco, the body can form so called “habits” of continuing to pair behaviors with tobacco to form a strong bond. These then can become triggers.

Over time, the trigger-smoking connection becomes so ingrained that smokers are convinced they can’t pay a bill, talk on the phone or drink coffee without a cigarette in hand. To leave tobacco behind for good, smokers must carefully dismantle their old routines and construct new ones, a doable but overwhelming task—especially alone.

3: Emotional ties to smoking

Though nicotine addiction and the smoking habit are the obvious reasons smokers struggle to quit, don’t underestimate the emotional bonds smokers have with cigarettes.

Consciously or not, those who smoke may consider smoking integral to their identity—as a member of their work crew. Or maybe cigarettes cement the bond between them and their spouse. Or they might consider cigarettes a reward for caring for a sick relative.

For many smokers, cigarettes serve as a comfort, a reliable companion, an old friend who doesn’t judge.

How a specialized cessation program to stop smoking can help

But there is hope, even for those who are severely addicted. I recently spoke with two Mayo Clinic physicians, a heart specialist and a lung specialist, about how they have changed their approach in recent years—and it’s been more effective in helping their patients stop smoking.

This approach involves planning, support, and the right medications to curb cravings and minimize withdrawal symptoms, and it’s much more successful than a finger wag.

Your organization can provide the tools for a similarly effective approach used by these physicians.

Through the EX Program, tobacco users can:

  • develop their own personalized plan to quit,
  • get support from experts and the EX Community filled with current and ex-tobacco users, and
  • receive information about medications right for them.

With your organization’s support and the expertise of tobacco treatment specialists, employees who use tobacco can overcome the fears holding them back. To learn more about the EX Program, developed by Truth Initiative® in collaboration with Mayo Clinic, visit the program page.


Michael Michael Burke, EdD, Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center
Michael Burke, EdD, Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center

Program Director

Dr. Burke has more than 20 years of clinical experience in treating tobacco dependence. At the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Burke supervises a program that treats more than 2,500 patients and educates more than 400 health professionals per year. He is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Mayo College of Medicine and the coordinator for the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center.

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