Smoking - The Filthy Truth

Two photographs tell the terrible tale.

The first shows a strapping 33-year-old Florida construction worker. Muscular and tanned, with sun-drenched blond hair, he stares proudly into the camera while holding his toddler son.

A second photo, taken only two months later, causes quiet gasps throughout the audience at College of Charleston’s Physician’s Auditorium. The same man is on his deathbed. Bald from chemotherapy and wasted by small-cell lung cancer, he is unrecognizable. His mouth gapes open as he cradles the earlier photo in his skeletal hands. His wife and young son sit next to him, crying.

***image2***"This is Bryan. He inspired me to start," said John Polito, a nicotine-cessation educator from Mount Pleasant. "Bryan wanted you to know his story."

Polito is founder and editor of, a popular online resource for people who want to break free of tobacco addiction. A former three-pack-a-day smoker for 30 years, he established the website July 15, 1999, two months after successfully quitting smoking.’s annual growth has been tremendous. It received 2.1 million hits in 2001, over 5 million in 2002, 7.7 million in 2003 and 22.4 million during 2004.

Polito brought his message to a group of College of Charleston students Sunday who are hoping to quit smoking. The two-hour "Freedom from Nicotine" seminar outlined the insidious addictive qualities of nicotine and offered an overview of how to cope with the gnawing nicotine cravings and anxieties that occur when quitting cold turkey.

In its natural state, nicotine protects the tobacco plant from being eaten by insects. Three times deadlier than arsenic, it is more lethal than strychnine.

"If you put three drops of nicotine on your tongue, you’d be dead," Polito said, noting that cigarettes are sophisticated delivery devices that allow smokers to regulate nicotine intake.

***image3***Because nicotine’s chemical structure is so similar to a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, it is able to unlock and control the flow of more than 200 neurochemicals in the brain, including mood-regulating substances such as serotonin (mood), adrenaline (stimulation) and dopamine (reward).

"Acetylcholine makes things happen. It’s like a conductor of an entire orchestra of neurochemicals that are cascading that cause a lot of things in the body to happen," he said. "It’s sort of like a channel changer."

Because nicotine is twice as effective as the acetylcholine molecule at unlocking dopamine and other substances, it allows users an unearned extra dose that causes the addictive rush smokers experience when inhaling.

"It’s like an alert, dopamine, adrenaline intoxication," Polito said. "Our eyes perk up. We become alert. Within eight seconds of taking a puff, you get that ‘aah’ sensation."

To protect itself against nicotine, the brain reconfigures itself and leaves users temporarily desensitized.

"There is only one problem. All the physical changes engineer a new tailored neurochemical sense of ‘normal’ built entirely upon the presence of nicotine," he added. "Now, any attempt to stop using it can trigger anxieties and powerful mood shifts and a true chemical addiction is born. Returning home to the ‘real you’ now has a price. Gradually the calmness and comfort associated with being the ‘real you’ fades into distant or even forgotten memory. Neurochemically, you are no longer ‘you’ and that’s what this program is about – going home to the ‘you’ you forgot."

Polito said a June 2005 study found that 86.8 percent of students who smoke at least one cigarette a day qualify as chemically dependent under federal mental health (DSMIII) guidelines. Ninety percent of adults who use tobacco become addicted.

"We’re not only drug addicts. We’re drug addicts who suck in more than 3,500 chemical particles and more than 500 gases with each puff," he said.

Two-thirds of smokers who start as youngsters get hooked; one-third will die, Polito said. He cited dozens of diseases that are linked to nicotine use.

The key to breaking this addiction can be distilled down to four words: Never take another puff. And, he said, abrupt nicotine withdrawal is the most effective method.

"Successful recovery involves developing the patience to allow the mind 10 days to two weeks to readjust to normal function," Polito said. "It can take up to 72 hours for our blood serum to become nicotine-free and for 90 percent of nicotine’s metabolites to exit the body via our urine. That’s when the anxieties associated with readjustment usually peak in intensity and gradually begin to decline."

But take one puff of nicotine and you’re back at square one, facing another 72 hours of detox and anxiety. That’s why Polito does not advocate nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).

"None of us are stronger than nicotine," Polito said. "The key to recovery isn’t in dragging out 72 hours of detox by weeks or months of toying with gradual weaning or other creative forms of nicotine delivery. In fact, pharmaceutical industry nicotine replacement therapy product commercials for the patch, gum and lozenge have not been open and forthright with smokers."

He said seven studies of over-the-counter nicotine patches and gums has an abysmal success rate of only 7 percent. Ninety-three percent of these NRT users had smoking relapses within six months.

"What’s worse is that almost 100 percent of second-time nicotine patch users are relapsing within six months, and that 36.6 percent of all current nicotine gum users are now classified as chronic long-term gum users," Polito said. 

The key to recovery is education, understanding and support, not nicotine, according to Polito.

"The secret to recovering ‘you’ is to challenge yourself that, for just one hour, one day at a time, to never take another puff," he said.

For more information on "Freedom from Nicotine" seminars and programs, call John Polito at (843) 849-9721 or e-mail him at To browse the WhyQuit website, go to 

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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