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In order to know why people smoke, perhaps, it is best to learn first what causes individuals to start adopting the habit of smoking. Generally, people begin to experiment with smoking during the late years of puberty to early adolescence (Jarvis, 2004). The reason for this could be predominantly traced to psychosocial causes. Specifically, it is attributed to adolescents’ perception that smoking is a “symbolic act” suggestive of maturity, toughness, or rebellion (Jarvis, 2004, p. 277). This perception may stem from the smoker’s social environment, desire to appear mature, and perceived level of success (Jarvis, 2004; Jacobs, 1997). For instance, a novice smoker who lives in an environment that supports smoking is likely to view this as a grown-up habit and become smokers themselves. In addition, those who are living in poor neighborhoods and studying in an environment where smoking is prevalent are also at risk of developing this harmful habit. To appear tough, children who see themselves as a failure are also inclined to engage in smoking (e.g., low school performance, negative self-esteem, etc.) (Jarvis, 2004). Thus, in order to attain the image they seek to portray, even if they know that it is detrimental to their health, they smoke.
The beginner bears with the awful taste of the first few cigarette sticks in order to achieve his or her desired image. Then, the pharmacological effects of smoking set in, which turn the “experiment” into a habit (Jarvis, 2004). These effects are mainly caused by the main component of cigarettes: nicotine. As a “psychomotor stimulant,” nicotine quickens the normal reaction time of novice smokers and improves their concentration (Jarvis, 2004, p. 278). However, after some time of frequent smoking, they develop tolerance to nicotine. Thus, chronic smokers no longer obtain the same positive effects as they used to as first time smokers. Nevertheless, long-time smokers claim that smoking calms them down when they are tensed and helps them effectively accomplish their tasks, even though there is no sufficient evidence that supports their claim (Jarvis, 2004).
According to Javris (2004), a reasonable explanation for chronic users’ perception that smoking has a calming effect may stem from the withdrawal symptoms they experience due to lack of nicotine in their body. Only a few hours after their last smoke, the effects of nicotine withdrawal, such as mood swings, decline in level of concentration or performance, uneasiness, ill-temperedness, swelling appetite, and cigarette cravings, start to take place. These effects intensify by the hour, and after the first week, their intensity level reaches its highest point. Smoking, however, alleviates the withdrawal symptoms altogether. This process is repeatedly experienced by chronic smokers, which may cause them to believe that cigarette has therapeutic effects (Jarvis, 2004).
Aside from the effects of nicotine withdrawal, there are behavioral forces that prevent smokers from abandoning the habit of smoking. Jarvis (2004) noted that the “behavioral rituals and sensory aspects of smoking,” together with nicotine consumption, psychologically conditions a person to smoke (p. 278). For heavy users who smoke 20 sticks a day, the nicotine uptake for every puff is related to seeing the packet, whiffing the smoke, and feeling the smoke graze the throat for thousands of times every year (Jarvis, 2004). Because of this behavioral conditioning, the need to smoke is reinforced.
The socioeconomic status of smokers and the social influences around them also play a role in encouraging smoking as a habit. For instance, those who are married to a smoker or those who belong to socially underprivileged groups where smoking is considered as the norm are more likely to sustain this habit. Studies in the United Kingdom also show that less fortunate smokers are predisposed to smoke more heavily and become significantly more addicted to nicotine (Jarvis, 2004). This may be due to the stress and pressures from financial and problems that they have deal with, which strengthens cigarette dependence (Jacobs, 1997).
In conclusion, despite the awareness of the adverse effects of smoking to their health, a number of pharmacological, behavioral, social, and socioeconomic factors cause people to smoke and sustain this harmful habit. Thus, smoking is a chronic condition that needs to be addressed by considering these factors that prevent smokers from abandoning their dependence to cigarettes.
- Jacobs, M. (1997). From the first to the last ash: The History, Economics & Hazards of Tobacco. Health and Literacy Special Collection.
- Jarvis, M.J. (2004, January). Why people smoke. BMJ, 328 (7434), 277–279.