Humans have been smoking for thousands of years. We all know about nicotine, addiction and habits now but there’s much more to it than that. We’ve explored why we smoke, through the lens of science and history.
Hey, I’ve got a deal for you: I’ll give you a product that delivers a buzz. In return, all I ask is that you pay copious amounts of money over your lifetime, which, by the way, is now probably going to be 10 years shorter due to your new habit.
Seems like a hard sell, doesn’t it? Yet currently nearly a billion humans have signed up for this deal by getting hooked on cigarettes and other tobacco products. That’s roughly one in seven people who smoke every day, according to The Lancet.
But why do people start smoking and what prevents them from quitting?
A smoker might say it just feels good. But there’s actually a lot of science to unpack about the physical and cultural factors that have made it such a widespread habit.
The tobacco leaf contains nicotine, which keeps smokers and e-cig users coming back for more.
Tobacco is part of the nightshade family of plants, or solanaceae, which also includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines.
Its leaves are high in nicotine, an addictive alkaloid that gets smokers hooked.
Inhaling tobacco leaves fast-tracks nicotine into the bloodstream through the lungs. It reaches the brain in seconds.
There’s actually a lot of science to unpack
Nicotine enters the brain dressed up so convincingly as acetylcholine that receptors are fooled into binding with it. It passes on a very specific message - release dopamine. Specifically, nicotine activates the mesolimbic pathway, which connects the middle of the brain to the forebrain, and is a key part of the reward center that stimulates pleasant feelings.
Within moments of lighting up, smokers feel the satisfying fix caused by dopamine flooding through their neural hardware. The problem is that nicotine’s espionage tricks the brain into thinking that it must’ve released too much acetylcholine. In response, it reduces the amount of the real neurotransmitter and starts sprouting more nicotine-specialized receptors.
This is the key process that gets (and keeps) smokers hooked.
Nicotine rewires the brain to crave more of it. That’s why tobacco products are so addictive - and so tough to quit.
In the absence of acetylcholine, the brain demands that something connect with leftover receptors to maintain normal function. People who quit smoking experience withdrawal because the nervous system hates leaving all those ports hanging wide open.
Fortunately, the brain eventually takes the hint that it should produce more acetylcholine to compensate for the lack of nicotine. Meanwhile, nicotine-hungry receptors wither over time from lack of stimulation, which causes cravings to diminish after longer periods of abstention.
That’s all well and good for explaining how smokers get addicted to cigarettes. But why take that first drag? Why give nicotine any opportunity to start building its neural monopoly?
The answer to that question has nothing to do with nightshades or neurotransmitters. It is entirely cultural.
Indigenous peoples of the Americas were the first humans to discover and cultivate tobacco. European colonisers made the tobacco industry a global commercial phenomenon.
Humans have been smoking tobacco for thousands of years, and for all kinds of reasons. Evidence of tobacco cultivation in the Andes Mountains dates back to at least 3,000 BCE, and use of the plant spread to North America more than 1,500 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492.
Indigenous peoples used tobacco as a pesticide, a recreational drug, a ritual item, and a medicinal herb. It was smoked, sniffed, chewed, applied to skin, and even used as an enema.
Some tribes communally inhaled tobacco smoke in sweathouses or as incense in shamanistic rituals, while others ceremonially passed pipes to establish trust during diplomatic negotiations. Smoking tobacco often had a spiritual connotation and was regarded as a means to connect with Indigenous deities.
It didn’t take European colonisers very long to get hooked on the habit themselves. An account by the 16th century Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas notes how addictive tobacco was to foreign settlers. “I knew Spaniards on this island of Cuba who were accustomed to take it,” he wrote in his history of the West Indies. “Being reprimanded for it, by telling them it was a vice, they replied they were unable to cease using it.”
Sound familiar? It’s no wonder that the plant rapidly sparked an expansive commercial industry and became one of the cash crops undergirding the Atlantic slave trade. In addition to its pleasant buzz, smoking tobacco was widely touted to have medical benefits in Europe and Asia.
Though the habit had its detractors, including King James I, it became integrated into the daily lives of a growing international population of smokers.
The Industrial Revolution resulted in the mass commercialisation of many products, and tobacco was no exception. Machines boosted cigarette production, and persuasive advertising extended the industry even further.
When the first cigarette-rolling machine was invented in the 1880s, the cigarette morphed from a luxury item to an affordable indulgence for millions of people.
During the 20th century, when advertising firms flourished, another major motivation to smoke emerged - image. Tobacco marketers launched influential campaigns depicting smokers as sexy, cool, and glamorous, and allegedly downplayed the emerging medical consensus that smoking was a leading public health hazard.
These ads often hired celebrities to promote their products; for instance, Ronald Reagan appeared in a cigarette campaign that promised the “merriest Christmas any smoker can have.”
This popular image of cigarettes proved especially persuasive to the most impressionable and status-conscious demographic of all time - adolescents. In the United States, 90 percent of smokers get hooked before they turn 18. Meanwhile, 10 percent of the world population of young teens (age 13 to 15) are smokers. These young consumers are particularly vulnerable to long-term addiction, which is why some commentators believe companies eventually had to be more closely regulated, to reduce the chances of tobacco products appealing to teenagers.
People get addicted to smoking for many reasons. But at the core of all of them is exposure to social and cultural environments that permit tobacco use.
For the past five millennia, smokers have gotten hooked on tobacco for its supposed medicinal uses, religious significance, pop culture image, calming emotional effects, and its power to bring people together .
If there’s one thing that binds all of these motivations together, it’s the concept of “monkey see, monkey do.” Kids follow the leads of their peers and elders. As a result, children of smokers are twice as likely to start smoking as those of non-smokers, and teens with at least two friends who smoke are six times more likely to try it themselves.
The powerful social transmission of the habit is a major reason that cigarettes have become an entrenched worldwide phenomenon, despite their well-known health consequences.
It’s easy to get addicted to nicotine and it’s hard to butt out, though millions of people do successfully kick the habit each year. Still, the number of smokers is growing in step with the global population, so unless we all act, this storied tradition is not likely to be extinguished any time soon.
Head photo by Stocksy