Santa Clara University

Wellness Center


How Tobacco Functions in the Brain:

When a smoker inhales tobacco smoke, nicotine reaches the brain in a few seconds. Nicotine from smoking reaches the brain even faster than it would if it were injected with a needle! No matter how it enters the body, when the nicotine gets to the brain, it affects the way the billions of brain cells, or neurons, communicate with each other.

Between and around neurons are critical spaces called synapses. Neurons communicate by sending messages along their bodies and across the synapses by releasing "messenger" chemicals called neurotransmitters. When a "receiving" cell has a certain level of the neurotransmitter, it turns around and sends the message to the next neuron. Nicotine acts like a stimulant. It excites more neurons to release excess neurotransmitters. After a person takes in nicotine a few times, the brain adjusts to the new levels of these neurotransmitters. Without nicotine, the brain suddenly has a lower level of the neurotransmitters it has become used to. The addict feels uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. The brains of addicts develop a set "necessary" level of nicotine. The addict will adjust his smoking or chewing to maintain the brain’s desired level of nicotine.

What are the short-term effects of smoking?

  • Bad breath.
  • Bad taste in mouth.
  • Smelly hair and clothes.
  • Yellow and brown stains on teeth.
  • Lost athletic ability.
  • Damage to the respiratory system.
  • Addiction to nicotine.
  • Risk of other drug use.
  • Decreased lung capacity.
  • Limited lung growth and function if used in youth.
  • Elevated heart rate.
  • Chronic cough.
  • Increased incidence of bronchitis.
  • Increased incidence of asthma and more severe asthma.

What are the long-term health consequences of smoking tobacco?

  • Death
  • Heart Disease
  • Cancer
  • Lung Disease
  • Reproductive Damage
  • Birth Defects
  • Other Damage

Tobacco Kills

Most people think of cancer when they think of tobacco use. Tobacco does cause a wide variety of devastating cancers. However, tobacco kills even more people through heart disease and stroke than it does through cancer! About 181,000 people die each year in the United States from smoking-related heart disease and stroke, and about 158,000 die from smoking-related cancer. The remainder of the smoking-related deaths, 123,000, are from lung diseases other than cancer.

Following is a list of the deadly diseases and other long-term effects of smoking and chewing tobacco.

Heart Disease

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure.)
  • Congestive heart failure -- Ineffective pumping of the heart leads to an accumulation of fluid in the lungs.
  • Coronary heart disease – Narrowed arteries lead to heart attack and death.
  • Heart attacks and congestive heart failure.
  • Blocked blood vessels.
  • Strokes – Blocked blood flow to the brain or bleeding in the brain. Stroke is a major killer.


  • Lung. (Primarily smoking-related)
  • Upper respiratory tract. (Primarily smoking-related)
  • Larynx. (Smoking or spit tobacco)
  • Mouth. (Smoking or spit tobacco)
  • Throat. (Smoking or spit tobacco)
  • Stomach. (Primarily spit tobacco-related)
  • Pancreas. (Smoking or spit tobacco)
  • Kidney. (Smoking or spit tobacco)
  • Bladder. (Smoking or spit tobacco)
  • Cervix. (Primarily smoking-related, since few women chew tobacco)

Lung Disease

  • Emphysema -- The very small airways (bronchioles) that join the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs lose elasticity. Patient loses ability to exhale fully, and chemical balance in the blood is disturbed. There is no cure for emphysema.
  • Chronic Bronchitis -- The airways of the lungs change shape and size and the mucous glands are enlarged, causing coughing and production of sputum.

Reproductive Damage

  • Abnormal sperm cells.
  • Impotence.
  • Difficulty maintaining pregnancy.
  • Menstrual disorders and early menopause

Birth Defects

Smoking during pregnancy can lead to:

  • Miscarriage or stillbirth.
  • Low birth weight –
  • Babies born to mothers who smoke during pregnancy weigh on the average between 200 to 300 grams less than other babies.
  • Premature birth --
  • Both low birth weight and premature birth can lead to breathing and other health problems.
  • Learning and behavior problems later in childhood.
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or "crib death" -- Seemingly healthy babies die without warning.
  • More upper respiratory problems, ear complications, or asthma when exposed to tobacco prior to birth.

Other Damage

  • Prematurely wrinkled skin.
  • Permanent gum and tooth loss.
  • Lost or weakened sense of taste.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Stomach ulcers.


Good Reasons for Quitting

Quitting smoking is one of the most important things you will ever do:

  • You will live longer and live better.
  • Quitting will lower your chance of having a heart attack, stroke, or cancer.
  • If you are pregnant, quitting smoking will improve your chances of having a healthy baby.
  • The people you live with, especially your children, will be healthier.
  • You will have extra money to spend on things other than cigarettes.

Five Keys for Quitting

Studies have shown that these five steps will help you quit and quit for good. You have the best chances of quitting if you use them together:

  1. Get ready.
  2. Get support.
  3. Learn new skills and behaviors.
  4. Get medication and use it correctly.
  5. Be prepared for relapse or difficult situations.

1. Get Ready

  • Set a quit date.
  • Change your environment.
  • Get rid of ALL cigarettes and ashtrays in your home, car, and place of work.
  • Don't let people smoke in your home.
  • Review your past attempts to quit. Think about what worked and what did not.
  • Once you quit, don't smoke—NOT EVEN A PUFF!

2. Get Support and Encouragement

Studies have shown that you have a better chance of being successful if you have help. You can get support in many ways:

  • Tell your family, friends, and coworkers that you are going to quit and want their support. Ask them not to smoke around you or leave cigarettes out.
  • Talk to your health care provider (for example, doctor, dentist, nurse, pharmacist, psychologist, or smoking counselor).
  • Get individual, group, or telephone counseling. The more counseling you have, the better your chances are of quitting. Programs are given at local hospitals and health centers. Call your local health department for information about programs in your area.

3. Learn New Skills and Behaviors

  • Try to distract yourself from urges to smoke. Talk to someone, go for a walk, or get busy with a task.
  • When you first try to quit, change your routine. Use a different route to work. Drink tea instead of coffee. Eat breakfast in a different place.
  • Do something to reduce your stress. Take a hot bath, exercise, or read a book.
  • Plan something enjoyable to do every day.
  • Drink a lot of water and other fluids.

4. Get Medication and Use It Correctly

Medications can help you stop smoking and lessen the urge to smoke.

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved five medications to help you quit smoking:
  1. Bupropion SR—Available by prescription.
  2. Nicotine gum—Available over-the-counter.
  3. Nicotine inhaler—Available by prescription.
  4. Nicotine nasal spray—Available by prescription.
  5. Nicotine patch—Available by prescription and over-the-counter.
  • Ask your health care provider for advice and carefully read the information on the package.
  • All of these medications will more or less double your chances of quitting and quitting for good.
  • Everyone who is trying to quit may benefit from using a medication. If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, nursing, under age 18, smoking fewer than 10 cigarettes per day, or have a medical condition, talk to your doctor or other health care provider before taking medications.

5. Be Prepared for Relapse or Difficult Situations

Most relapses occur within the first 3 months after quitting. Don't be discouraged if you start smoking again. Remember, most people try several times before they finally quit. Here are some difficult situations to watch for:

  • Alcohol. Avoid drinking alcohol. Drinking lowers your chances of success.
  • Other smokers. Being around others who smoke can make you want to smoke again.
  • Weight gain. Many smokers will gain weight when they quit, usually less than 10 pounds. Eat a healthy diet and stay active. Don't let weight gain distract you from your main goal—quitting smoking. Some quit-smoking medications may help delay weight gain.
  • Bad mood or depression. There are a lot of ways to improve your mood other than smoking.

If you are having problems with any of these situations, talk to your doctor or other health care provider.


Special Situations or Conditions

Studies suggest that everyone can quit smoking. Your situation or condition can give you a special reason to quit.

  • Pregnant women/new mothers: By quitting, you protect your baby's health and your own.
  • Hospitalized patients: By quitting, you reduce health problems and help healing.
  • Heart attack patients: By quitting, you reduce your risk of a second heart attack.
  • Lung, head, and neck cancer patients: By quitting, you reduce your chance of a second cancer.
  • Parents of children and adolescents: By quitting, you protect your children and adolescents from illnesses caused by second-hand smoke.


Additional Resources

You may want to contact these organizations for further information on smoking and how to quit.

For general information:

American Heart Association
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231
(800) AHA-USA1 (242-8721)

American Cancer Society
1599 Clifton Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30329
(404) 320-3333

American Lung Association
1740 Broadway, 14th Floor
New York, NY 10019
(212) 315-8700

National Cancer Institute
Bethesda, MD 20892
(800) 4-CANCER (422-6237)

For pregnant women:

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
409 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
(202) 638-5577

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