Addicted to tobacco

Society sometimes has little empathy for smokers who are trying to quit their tobacco habit. ”Can’t quit? Try harder. And why did you even start in the first place?” tends to be the common attitude.

Well, after viewing a couple of online clips from a new public television documentary, I see this issue in an entirely different light. “Tobacco Addiction: The Unfiltered Truth” was produced by Twin Cities Public Television and ClearWay Minnesota and premieres on Sunday. Additional air dates and times are planned over the next few weeks.

The filmmakers have taken an unusually compelling approach by seeking out firsthand stories from people who have struggled with nicotine addiction.

These aren’t individuals you would necessarily associate with a tobacco habit. For instance, there’s Brad Piepkorn, who has asthma yet started smoking when he was 17 and hasn’t been able to successfully quit. Brad is an articulate, clean-cut college graduate. Other people, including his boss, see him as an unlikely candidate for tobacco addiction. But as Brad explains, “Anyone can fall victim.”

Then there’s Pamela Gold, a businesswoman and grandmother who managed to quit after 35 years of smoking. Like any other addiction, tobacco can take control and smokers often don’t even realize the extent to which they’re hooked, “because it is a part of our lives,” she says.

Tobacco use, addiction and cessation have been extensively studied. It’s safe to say we know far more than we did 20 years ago or even 10 years ago.

Here’s some of what has been learned:

- The vast majority of smokers start when they’re in their teens, an age when many kids can be rebellious, experimental and vulnerable to peer pressure, or believe it’ll be easy for them to set aside the cigarettes once they reach adulthood.

- Smoking during adolescence has been linked with a far greater likelihood of addiction, possibly due to psychological or pathophysiological factors associated with this stage of human development. Although it’s possible for people to pick up the tobacco habit later in life, it’s much less common.

- Environment seems to matter. Children who grow up in households where at least one adult is a smoker are at greater risk of becoming a smoker too. In the policy arena, smoke-free policies appear to help prevent and reduce tobacco use and motivate smokers to try to quit.

- Youth prevention has the greatest and most long-term impact on reducing tobacco use in the United States. Some of the most successful strategies involve making it more difficult for kids to obtain tobacco, such as raising the cost of cigarettes or placing all tobacco products behind store counters.

- Nicotine dependence often makes it extremely difficult for many smokers to quit. Although the addiction is partly physical, it also contains psychological components. Smokers can find themselves as dependent on their smoking rituals – lighting up the first cigarette of the day, for instance, or their daily smoke break with their coworkers - as they are on the nicotine.

- Failure to quit the first time doesn’t necessarily signal complete failure. Many tobacco users make multiple attempts before they’re able to successfully quit.

- Although some smokers manage to quit by going cold turkey, many need more than this and will probably require some medical help in order to quit.

- Readiness is important. Not everyone wants to quit, and of those who do, not all of them are ready for it. Nor is there a one-size-fits-all strategy for cessation; what works for one person may be less effective for someone else.

There’s an enormous public debate in the United States about health, lifestyle choices and individual control. Many Americans believe it all comes down to individual responsibility but it isn’t always this simple. Perhaps “The Unfiltered Truth,” with its stories of tobacco use and addiction, will add a human, personal and necessary perspective to the discussion.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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