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Why is it so hard to quit?

January event to debunk mysteries around nicotine addiction

By Heidi Wicks

Although many understand the dangers for the body of smoking and nicotine addiction, less are aware of the science behind why it’s so hard to quit.

On Jan. 11, 2022, the Office of Alumni Engagement, in partnership with the School of Pharmacy, will offer a free event entitled MUNalum 101: Smoking Science and Quitting Myths.

Dr. Leslie Phillips (B.Sc.(Pharmacy)’91) , a professor at the School of Pharmacy, operates the Medication Therapy Services Clinic’s Quit Smoking and Vaping Clinic. During the event, Dr. Phillips will discuss the mechanics of how nicotine affects the body, and decode misconceptions about quitting.

Dr. Phillips has blonde hair and glasses, and is wearing a navy blue blouse with white polka dots. She is smiling warmly at the camera. She is sitting on a couch, with one arm resting on the back of the couch.
Dr. Leslie Phillips is a professor in the School of Pharmacy.
Photo: Submitted


“Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in Canada,” said Dr. Phillips. “The number of deaths related to smoking is greater than those due to alcohol, heroin, murder, suicide, motor vehicle accidents, fire and HIV combined. One in five of all deaths are due to smoking, with one in two smokers dying from a smoking-related illness. Twenty per cent of smokers develop lung cancer, and one third of all cancer deaths are due to smoking.”

Science Vs. Myth

Most make multiple attempts before quitting for good, but these failed attempts are often defeating to many individuals. Dr. Phillips’ hope is that by dispelling some of the myths, tobacco users will be encouraged to keep trying. The only failure is when you stop trying.

“The most effective, long-term approach to quitting is through a combination of quit medication and behavioural supports.”

Here are five of Dr. Phillips’ messages when she’s helping her patients along their quit journey:

  1. Blame the cigarette, not the smoker: Science!

“Quitting smoking is probably one of the hardest things patients will ever have to do, but it will also be one of their most significant achievements.” That’s because nicotine is perhaps the most addictive substance in society today.

  1. Believe in the biological basis of will power: Science!

“So let’s say it’s Friday night. You go to a party and there are a bunch of people going outside to smoke. Your amygdala – the short-term gain part of your brain – anticipates the pleasure and urges you to engage in the behaviour that leads to smoking again, and you impulsively go outside and join the others. You smoke, you get a big blast of dopamine as your reward. But, for a split second there is an opportunity for another higher centre of the brain – the Reflective Reward System – to reflect upon or think about whether or not it wants to engage in the behaviour. It is possible over time for this system to learn to gain dominance over the amygdala, resulting in the ability to suppress short-term rewards for long-term gain.”

  1. Understand how the variety of nicotine replacement therapy options and treatments work: Science!

“At the smoking clinic, we try to choose a formulation based on patient preference, contradictions and adverse effects, as well as affordability. The nicotine patch is long-acting and delivers nicotine through the skin over 24 hours. Nicotine lozenges, gum, inhalers and spray are short acting, and are often used in combination with the patch to treat breakthrough cravings. There are also two other prescription medications and a natural health product, that like nicotine replacement products can double or triple the chances of a successful quit. There are many pros and cons of each treatment. Empowering individuals by educating them about options for quitting and engaging them in treatment decisions,  enhances self-efficacy.”

  1. Cold turkey is the best, most natural way to quit: Myth!

“It’s the least effective way to quit. Most will relapse within 24-48 hours of quitting cold turkey because the nicotine withdrawal symptoms are so severe.”

  1. “I’ve tried so many times to quit: I just can’t”: Myth!

“Mark Twain said, ‘Quitting is easy…I’ve done it a thousand times.’ I try to encourage patients to take failed quit attempts as opportunities to learn about why they slipped, and what they might do differently next time. A common belief is that it takes five to seven times to quit. More likely, a smoker tries to quit on average 30 times before successfully quitting.”

If you or someone you love is a smoker, Dr. Phillips hopes you’ll attend the session.

Register for this free session today, to set the stage for a smoke-free future.  

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