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About smoking

How nicotine works

The major active ingredient in tobacco is nicotine, a stimulant that acts on the body by causing it to increase its production of adrenalin, a chemical produced by the body in response to stress, fear or excitement, which acts by increasing the heart, pulse and breathing rates.

Every time you draw on a cigarette it delivers a burst of nicotine to the body and brain and therefore stimulates adrenaline – giving smokers a buzz or high. By working in this way on the nervous system, nicotine can reduce tiredness and improve concentration, but you should never forget it is also the reason why smokers become dependent on tobacco.

Smoking also provides rituals – lighting up, sharing a cigarette with friends – as well as providing a diversion in a stressful situation by giving smokers something to do with their hands. Nonetheless, smoking is still thought by many as sexy, cool, stress-relieving, a confidence boost, a tool with which to meet people and a tradition after a shag.

Smoking tobacco (in varying forms) has a long history but it is only in the last century, with the advent of the cigarette, that it achieved its status as a social activity (even to the extent of being promoted by doctors as a remedy to breathing problems in the 1950s). Today, however, smoking is widely accepted as being a major health hazard, with tobacco companies paying out billions in lawsuits to people who have suffered lung disease and cancer as a result of their habit.

The damaging effects of smoking are often gradual, taking many years to appear, which is why the harm it causes can often seem inconsequential to young smokers.

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