Reasons People Smoke

The core reason people smoke is because they are addicted to nicotine and can't stop—it's a simple as that. Or is it? Though nicotine addiction is certainly the biological reason for why people smoke, there are a host of other factors that are also at play.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that as of 2009, more than 46 million Americans smoke. About 443,000 people in the United States die from smoking-related illnesses each year. Smoking cigarettes causes more deaths than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide and illegal drugs combined. Despite this, one in five people still indulge—ome have attempted to quit smoking and failed, and others have not considered quitting at all.

The risks of smoking are well known—now let's dig into why people smoke despite them.

Understanding Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine addiction not only perpetuates one's desire to smoke, but it makes it difficult to try to apply mind over matter and quit. When smokers start to cut down on cigarettes, they begin to go into withdrawal, which causes a variety of unpleasant symptoms including headache, fatigue, irritability and cravings. The fastest way to mitigate them? Smoking another cigarette.

Most smokers attempting to quit imagine that they will experience those initial feelings of withdrawal for the rest of their lives. Actually, within a very short period of time after putting out that last cigarette, physical withdrawal symptoms will start to abate, with urges becoming weaker and shorter in duration. The intervals between urges will soon lengthen. Finally, they will become very infrequent before stopping altogether. Those who quit will eventually get past the discomfort, feel better and have renewed energy. The key, of course, is knowing that—and committing to ride it out.

Beyond Nicotine: Other Reasons Why People Smoke

Ask several smokers this question, and they're likely to have different answers. While generalities cannot be made, there are some factors that many people say are or have been at play in their picking up their first pack and establishing their smoking habit.

Many people start smoking in their teens and are addicted by the time they are adults. The most often reported reasons that teens take up smoking include looking mature, a desire to experiment with something "forbidden" and peer pressure.

Adults often smoke for other reasons. They may have personal or financial problems and pressures that cause them to seek the temporary escape and numbing of feelings that smoking can provide. Many adult smokers say that cigarettes can almost act like a crutch to lean on during difficult times.

Emotions beyond stress can also factor in. Loneliness, for example, is often cited as a reason for lighting up. You are never alone when you have your little "buddy" with you, some say—a comfort that comes as quickly as a flame can be lit. Some smokers even say that the act of having a cigarette in their mouth and taking a drag gives them a sense of pleasure and comfort not unlike sucking your thumb as a child.

Others say they "reward" themselves with smoking. Whenever they have accomplished a task, a cigarette can be like a pat on the back for a job well done. The first cigarette of the day can be a way to ease into the daily grind, while the last one before bed can serve as a sense of completion. In between are little rewards for taking care of all the tasks of everyday living.

There are those who may even smoke to control their weight. On average, smokers weigh seven pounds less than non-smokers. Smoking reduces appetite and decreases the sense of taste and smell.

The social aspect of smoking, of course, cannot be ignored. Many smokers feel part of a "club;" identifying with a group who, say, goes out for smoke breaks at work gives a sense of belonging and bonding.

Understanding all of the factors that go into why people choose to smoke can help you better understand someone who lights up despite all we know about how bad smoking is for us. If you are a smoker, you may or may not be acutely aware of these and other factors that may be factoring in to why you can't kick the habit. If you are trying to quit, consider the above and look for substitutes and changes that you can make to take cigarettes out of the equation.

Written by:
Betty Holt

American Cancer Society. Cigarette Smoking. Available at: Accessed on June 4, 2011.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 23 Jun 2011

Last Modified: 19 Feb 2015