About time to stop demonizing smokers
The most powerful person in the most powerful nation was powerless against nicotine addiction. He smashed through racial barriers but struggled for years to break the cigarette habit. President Barack Obama finally quit smoking last March after many quit attempts, according to a Feb. 8 Associated Press report. President Obama's battle exemplifies why we at Santa Monica College need to stop demonizing and shaming smokers. It's counter-productive and stems from a lack of understanding about the addiction. A person's first few cigarettes cause permanent changes in the human brain that can ensnare even the highest achievers.
As an ex-smoker, this is my plea for empathy and my message of encouragement for those hoping to quit. Yes, we know it's bad for us, and yes, we would quit tomorrow if it were easy.
"You can still be a good person," said SMC student Simone Kuyumcuoglu, 23, a nutrition major from Sweden who smokes. Like many of us, she succeeded in quitting for a time, then relapsed.
SMC actively recruits international students, whose tuition bolsters the college's finances. Many international students come from countries where smoking is more common and accepted.
"If you want me here, accept who I am," Kuyumcuoglu said on a recent afternoon, one of about 50 smokers on the sidewalk near Pearl Street. She feels judged, noting that people seem more forgiving of marijuana smokers than cigarette smokers.
Fellow SMC student and cigarette smoker Joey Bachrach, 19, a psychology/business major, also is tired of condescending comments. "You're an underage drinker. I guess that's just as bad," he said.
Too few people understand how smoking changes the brain. Smoking is not a moral failing, it's symptom of chemical dependency, according to researcher Dr. David P.L. Sachs, whom I interviewed in 2005 for my master's thesis.
Nicotine mimics the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Smoking floods the brain with nicotine, causing the body to grow extra nicotine receptors in the thinking, emotional, and pleasure reward areas of the brains. That creates a "new normal" for smokers, making it tougher for them to concentrate and calm down when they don't have enough nicotine for those receptors.
Genetics can impact the degree of nicotine dependence, with some brains adapting more quickly and completely to its presence, hooking that smoker more thoroughly.
Only about 10 percent of smokers are not physically dependent on nicotine. These rare social smokers can have an occasional cigarette. I was heavily addicted and would wake up an extra hour early to smoke a few cigarettes before work.
Here's an interesting article on tobacco dependence featuring Dr. Sachs: http://www.oralcancerfoundation.org/tobacco/butt_stops_here.htm
For those who want to quit, I can share some advice I found helpful when I finally succeeded in quitting at age 33, thanks to a one-week stay at the Center for a Smoke-Free Life (http://www.napavalleysmokefree.org/):
1. Don't listen to people who say, "You'll quit when you're ready." Like any addiction, you will never feel 100 percent ready to quit. Maybe more like 55-45 percent ready.
2. It's OK to use nicotine replacement lozenges or patches. They will help your body and mind function more normally while you break the psychological habit. Quitting cold turkey is not more virtuous than using medical help.
3. After quitting, you can never have just one more cigarette, because those extra nerve pathways will always remain in your brain, lying dormant, just waiting to get activated again. In my 20s, I used to quit and then just bum a cigarette or two, rationalizing that it was better than smoking a pack a day. But if you smoke just one cigarette and flood your brain with nicotine, it will reignite those neurotransmitter pathways and you'll crave cigarettes as bad as you did the first day you quit.
If you are a non-smoker, consider yourself lucky. Be supportive of smokers as they struggle to quit.
We don't give asthmatics a hard time about needing their inhalers. We don't ridicule diabetics whose bodies need insulin. Why then do people judge smokers whose brains have grown accustomed to nicotine?
Instead of shunning smokers, SMC should get serious about the help it offers students, faculty and staff members who have tried to quit and failed.