Nicotine Dependence

Nicotine has been proven to be as addictive as cocaine and heroin and may even be more addictive. Many people who smoke develop nicotine dependence, which makes quitting all the harder, especially when they try to stop smoking on their own. In fact, 70 percent of smokers report wanting to quit, but many wait until they develop a significant tobacco-related disease such as heart disease, cancer or stroke.

The good news is that nicotine dependence is a treatable condition and there are significant health benefits to quitting at any age. If you smoke, quitting is the single most important thing you will ever do for your health.

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The average smoker starts smoking as a teenager, a time of stress and searching for self-identity and general lack of concern about long-term health consequences. Many adults trying to quit have been a smoker longer than a non-smoker, and have not developed healthy ways of managing stress, anxiety or anger. These issues often surface when attempting to quit and interfere with the quitting process.

Quitting represents release from an addictive substance that controls behavior every day and can substantially limit personal growth. People who quit often undergo transformations, accompanied by a new sense of power and feeling that, "If I can do this, I can do anything."

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Nicotine is as addictive as heroin and causes release of the pleasure chemical dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain within minutes of the first puff, which reinforces continued tobacco use.

Tobacco users get hooked because of that pleasant feeling or "rush" and often continue to use nicotine to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

Some of the complex factors involved in tobacco and nicotine dependence are:

  • How the body handles nicotine, how it is absorbed and removed and how the body responds to it
  • Environmental factors, such as smoking while drinking coffee or after meals
  • Physiologic factors, such as a person’s genetic predisposition to addiction

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Tobacco use is responsible for about one in five deaths annually in the United States.

Smoking can damage virtually all systems of your body and can cause:

Cardiovascular Disease

Lung Disease

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Quitting smoking for good and overcoming nicotine dependence requires a multi-faceted approach that may include counseling, support groups, behavioral therapy and medication.

The UCSF Fontana Tobacco Treatment Center offers classes with nurses and pharmacists trained in treating tobacco dependence. The center helps smokers maximize the likelihood of success in efforts to quit. Services include Smoking Cessation classses and a Relapse Prevention Program.

Quitting "cold turkey" is likely to be only 5 percent successful after a year. In general, using medications will double or triple a person's success at stopping. Counseling also doubles the success rate. Behavioral therapy to identify triggers and modify routines is an important part of the process.

Most smokers require multiple attempts to stop smoking completely, learning from each attempt. The key step is to make an attempt to stop smoking.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

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UCSF Clinics & Centers

Tobacco Treatment Center
1701 Divisadero Street, Suite 100
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 885-7895
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