I recently came across some very interesting, albeit disturbing research findings and in my self-proclaimed role as the Gadfly of the soul, decided to share them with you.
We have 700,000 new smokers every year and almost all of the newly afflicted are youths. So much for negative advertising! What accounts for this discrepancy between all these cautions about the dangers of smoking and this new statistic? Researchers suggest that early attitudes about smoking and early experimentation may give smoking enough of a foothold to become a lifelong addiction. A study involving 30,000 teenagers in New Zealand found than many teens reported at least minor symptoms of addiction after just a handful of cigarettes.
In addition the researchers suggest that smoking may change brain chemistry making people resistant to antismoking messages.
Here is a view into the chemistry lab of your brain. Dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters, is a “wonderful” substance. It is the “I feel good, man” chemical, but in excess it interferes with the learning process and prevents us from learning from our mistakes. Too much of the good thing, you see. Well, what fMRI studies saw (taking pictures of your brain as it does its work) is that smokers have elevated levels of dopamine in their brains. In tasks involving learning new skills administered, smokers did not learn from their mistakes as well as non-smokers.
A little more brain physiology? The Thalamus is the part of the brain that acts as the traffic controller, it filters out information that otherwise would be too overwhelming at any given moment. The problem is that with smokers this controller is overly diligent. Nicotine blocks out even more than the usual and expected amount of information especially the unpleasant type. You have heard smokers claiming that smoking calms them down, it does, but at high price it appears. So, going back to negative advertising, what do you think the smoker confronted with a picture of rotting lungs would do? You got it! He would light up and block out the unpleasant information.
Is there any salvation, you ask, or did you just want to gives us bad news? Well, yes I think there is good news. The more we know about how exactly nicotine gains an early foothold in the brain the more able we will be to develop medicines and behavioral therapies to snuff out the habit.
For the time being we do know that early impressions are strong and long lasting. So, feel free to start your kids’ anti smoking education as early as first grade. The earlier they understand and believe that smoking is gross and not “cool” at all the better insulated they will be against later peer pressure. And above all, do what you preach.