Nicotine and Addiction: Does Getting Sober Mean I Have to Stop Smoking?

In the recovery community, tobacco seems to be everywhere. In fact, a survey conducted in New York discovered that 70% of people who enter treatment programs use tobacco. The use of tobacco is widespread, yet its long-term effects on the success of treatment aren’t always questioned. Some people see cigarettes and other forms of nicotine as an outlet, a “safe” stress reliever that works as a “lesser of two evils” between using substances or smoking. 

In light of recent research, experts have found that this isn’t the case. New data has shown that nicotine can harm the recovery process. Despite this data, some treatment centers and misinformed media still believe that you don’t have to ditch cigarettes in recovery. 

A Dangerous Myth

Smoking in treatment centers has been the culture for quite some time. Treatment centers have recently started including smoking cessation as a part of their recovery programs, viewing nicotine in the same category as other drugs and alcohol. Despite these changes, the myths persist due to clinical lore and public opinion. 

The common belief is that quitting smoking is too difficult for patients to achieve on top of everything else. Earlier ideas even claimed that smoking might help patients with substance use disorder abstain earlier than those who didn’t smoke. The thought process was “one addiction at a time,” or “nicotine addiction isn’t worse than what you were addicted to.” Due to these myths, a culture of smoking has persisted despite the dangerous effects on the patient’s health and recovery. 

The Truth About Addiction and Nicotine

Chances are, you probably do know about the adverse health effects of tobacco as there have been many successful campaigns educating the public about health risks like cancer, heart disease, and lung disease. Even though smoking trends have improved, the tobacco-related disease remains the number one preventable death. E-cigarettes and vapes have been used as a “healthy alternative.” However, evidence still shows that these devices can still cause the same inflammatory responses as cigarettes and potentially damage the heart and nervous system. 

The most alarming evidence related to recovery and nicotine is that cigarette use can increase a patient’s likelihood of relapse. Researchers conducting the survey found that those who smoked cigarettes at the initial interview and were still smoking three years later were about 1.5 times more likely to use drugs and twice as likely to have a substance use disorder at the follow-up interview than those who quit smoking. 

A lot of this is because nicotine works like any addictive drug by affecting our reward pathways. The same parts of the brain that are influenced by any other addictive substances are activated, and the behavior continues. Additionally, those addicted to alcohol have a higher nicotine dependence since the usage often occurs together. Those who drink a lot tend to smoke more when they drink. Nicotine is just like any other addiction, and it’s just as deadly. 

You Don’t Have to Quit Cold Turkey

In fact, it’s healthier if you don’t quit cold turkey. Quitting immediately can lead to more intense withdrawals than if you slowly wean yourself off of the drug. Since withdrawal symptoms are so intense, it makes recovery that much more difficult because most people try to quit on willpower alone. Going cold turkey can lead to intense cravings, intense psychological symptoms,  and eventually giving up altogether. 

You aren’t alone in wanting to quit. According to the FDA, 70% of current adult smokers in the United States want to quit, but only 55% attempted to do so in the past year, and only seven percent were successful quitting for six to twelve months. 

How Can You Quit?

It’s hard to know where to start, but like any other addiction, take it a day at a time. Very few people succeed the first time they try to quit, so the best approach is to be patient and stay consistent. Don’t beat yourself up if you end up giving in and smoking after your first couple of attempts. Just keep trying. 

There are plenty of resources to help you quit smoking. The most important resources will be your doctor or primary care practitioner. They can give you resources like information on what to expect from withdrawals to how long the symptoms will persist. They can also offer you nicotine withdrawal products like the patch, nicotine gum, or nasal spray that help you slowly wean off of nicotine without damaging your lungs further. Doctors might also prescribe medication like Chantix/Champix or Zyban, which work similarly to things like the patch and give you a boost of dopamine as a stress-relieving chemical. 

The myths are dangerous, and the data is clear. Someone who wishes to be sober should also tackle their addiction to nicotine alongside any other substances they are receiving help for. Abstaining from smoking improves your chances of recovery. Smoking might seem like a big thing to tackle, but recognize the strength that is in you. If you’ve gotten sober from other substances, you can succeed in achieving sobriety from cigarettes too. Approach it the same way you approached it before—one step at a time. Reach out to friends, family, and support groups if you feel overwhelmed. They are here to help. Don’t put off smoking when you feel less stressed; stress will always exist, but the way you manage stress can change. Quitting smoking is no easy task, and it’s okay to reach out for help. To learn more about nicotine addiction, stress management, reach out at (800) 643-2108.