Catch-up no.3: Smoking and over-eating

How satisfying it is when two independently admirable sources of inspiration turn out to share a common thesis. Such is the case with Allen Carr’s ‘nine million copies sold’ Easy Way To Stop Smoking and the 2009 treatise by ex-commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, David Kessler. What’s even more remarkable is that Carr should’ve come to the same conclusions as Kessler despite basing his entire set of arguments on personal experience, observation and intuition, whereas Kessler had access to extensive scientific research and training to bolster his case.

Starting with Kessler’s The End Of Overeating: the basic thesis is that food manufacturers and retailers combine sugar, fat and salt in order to make food and drink ‘hyper-palatable’, in such a way that they mess with our brains in a pretty fundamental way, over-riding the normal tendency towards balance. Specifically: highly potent, multisensory foods push our reward-seeking behaviour, fuelled by a chemical called dopamine, into overdrive, such that we continue to ‘hunger’ for these kinds of food when we’ve long satisfied our actual physical needs.

Similarly Allen Carr argues that the vast majority of our addiction to nicotine is psychological: although it’s a very fast-acting drug, smokers go for long periods without a cigarette (on flights, at friends’ houses, at night) without any real sense of deprivation at all. As a society we’ve been brain-washed into believing that smoking is pleasurable (smokers must do it for a reason, mustn’t they?) and all the chemical addiction to nicotine does is reinforce that brain-washing: we misconstrue the slight feeling of relief we get when we light up a cigarette (relief that comes from satisfying a craving that was itself caused by the last cigarette) as being genuine pleasure.

I wouldn’t particularly recommend either book to anyone who isn’t, in the case of Carr, looking to free themselves from the bane of smoking or, with Kessler, looking to get a better handle on appetite. A lot of the power of Carr’s analysis comes from the way he so acutely pinpoints the ‘reality’ of a smoker’s lifestyle, which will probably feel pretty alien to a non-smoker, and Kessler spends many, many, many chapters describing the million-and-one ways in which food companies mix the sugar/salt/fat combo to dupe us.

But what a pleasure to read Kessler, at the end of his book – supported as it is by page after page of endnotes linking to scientific evidence reported in peer-reviewed journals – saying this, by way of analogy:

By itself nicotine is only moderately reinforcing, but that begins to change with the building of layer upon layer of sensory stimulation: The sight of the packaging, the crinkling sound of the wrapper, the tactile sensation as you light a cigarette and hold it between your finders, and the sensory characteristics of the first puff all bolster the reinforcement. Factor in the times of day and the location where you often smoke, and smoking becomes conditioned behaviour. Cues, coupled with the emotional salience that the tobacco industry has embedded in cigarettes through decades of strategic advertising, intensify the drive for nicotine, which then becomes highly reinforcing.


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