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Why do we smoke?

A few years ago, researchers from the Max Planck Institute, Silke Allmann and Ian Baldwin, discovered an interesting fact about hornworm caterpillars. They found these creatures write their own death sentence while feeding on tobacco. Some would say the scientists might have gotten their inspiration from Alice in Wonderland.  In the story, a tobacco-smoking caterpillar blows colourful clouds of smoke, while speaking to Alice.

Allmann and Baldwin’s finding is just as captivating as Lewis Carroll’s fairy tale. Their study says that when hornworm caterpillars chew tobacco, their saliva reacts with a chemical substance in the air and releases a signal in their surrounding environment. This signal is intercepted by the predatory insects, who then track the caterpillars and devour them in one bite.

Of course, if it were a story of a predator threatening human’s existence, we would have turned the table on it. We, humans are a cognitive species, far more superior than caterpillars in terms of intelligence and ability to survive! But the truth is, when it comes to tobacco, we are no different than the tiny insects.

Every year, millions of people around the world succumb to their long-standing tobacco addiction, falling prey to the diseases that come along with it. Unlike the inane caterpillars, people who smoke tobacco know they are digging their own graves with every cigarette they light! This, despite their exposure to advertisements, statuary warnings, awareness campaigns, and decades of research cautioning them against the blight of tobacco addiction. Still, the number of smokers and their deaths is only skyrocketing.

Such is the strength of will and perks of having positive influencers in life. But strangely, not everyone looks for a way out.


Why can’t we quit smoking, even though we are aware of the dreadful consequences? And why is smoking tobacco so commonplace amongst young adults? On the occasion of World No Tobacco Day, Soulveda speaks to experts, smokers, and quitters to find answers to these questions, and see if there is a way out from the pit.

Karan is a 29-year-old engineer at a leading IT firm in India. He had been a smoker since his college days. “It was something that everyone was doing in my social circle,” Karan says. “And when one of my hostel roommates gave me a half-burned cigarette to try, I didn’t realise, that one will become two, and two will become four. And soon, I will become an addict, smoking a pack every day.”

But a few years later, when Karan started to see a decline in his health—shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue—he knew it was time to quit. “I knew if I want to quit smoking, I have to start hating tobacco. So, I changed my attitude towards cigarettes and started reducing the count by one every day,” he recollects. It took him four months, a few nicotine patches, and a strong will to completely overcome his addiction. At first, the withdrawal caused irritation and anxiousness. But in hindsight, Karan says it was worth it. Because his dedication not only broke the shackles of tobacco from his life, but also inspired one of his friends to rise above his tobacco addiction.

Such is the strength of will and perks of having positive influencers in life. But strangely, not everyone looks for a way out. Especially people in the early stages of their addiction who think cigarettes are no pits but trenches. Archita Reddy, a psychotherapist, sheds some light on this misinterpretation. “Many people make cigarettes their defence mechanism to calm nerves in the event of stress or anxiety. It could be because of competition at school or work that only grows fiercer every day, or due to the issues in personal life,” she says. Reddy explains that instead of sharing these problems with loved ones or seeking professional help, most smokers continually turn to tobacco in order to escape reality.

Rahul—an analyst at a US-based firm—wants to quit, but unlike Karan, his efforts and willpower always fall short of the finish line. He says his problems exist due to peer pressure. “I have three flatmates and all of them are chain-smokers. I rarely smoke when I’m alone, but with my friends around, I’m not able to hold myself back,” he confesses.

When parents think their fundamental role is to be a provider first, it eventually derails them from taking interest in their children’s lives.


Perhaps, Rahul’s predicament stems from what Jim Rohn, the famous American author, once observed: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” It means if all your close friends watch English movies, your interest in those movies would increase too; if all are vegan, you would be more likely to attempt being a vegan too; and if all smoke a pack every day, your two-cigarettes-per day habit might turn into a pack real fast!

Reddy believes if people in the same boat as Rahul aspire to quit, they not only need to dig into their own minds. “The gnarly roots of tobacco addiction lingers deep in the subconscious mind. Try to remember the first incident that led you to your first cigarette. Figure out what made you pick it and why cigarettes succeeded in overpowering you,” Reddy advises. For some it could be the influence of television, and for others, it could simply be because no one told them tobacco is fatal before they could get take their first drag.

Having a torchbearer in life can make a big difference. It is parents’ primary responsibility to be the moral compass for their children and navigate them in the right direction, according to clinical psychologist Dr Joy Banerjee. He observes, “It is indeed a responsibility that goes without saying, but not all parents understand this. In my experience, I have seen parents complaining they have no idea what their children do at school and what kind of company they keep,” Dr Banerjee observes. When parents think their fundamental role is to be a provider first, it eventually derails them from taking interest in their children’s lives. And when no one is there for them to separate the bad from the good, children often end up mirroring their close friends, and that is usually how many addiction stories begin, he says.

Don’t smokers already know where their addiction is leading them to? In all probability, they do. Perhaps, their very addiction renders them powerless, blinding them to the reality. This is where loved ones can give them a push to take the first step in the right direction. With the help and support of parents, friends, spouses, and colleagues, smokers can climb out of the addictive pit and win the battle. Smokers don’t have to be like the caterpillars that write their own death sentence; we can help them flutter freely, like butterflies.

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