The ‘just one’ trap

Why an ex-smoker can never become a social smoker!

And today I’m talking about the people who have already quit smoking and are now ex-smokers – AND the ‘just one smoke’ trap – AND how, and why, that usually results in a relapse.

We all know the story of the person that finally managed to quit. Then 6 months later at a party and a couple of drinks later, they say to themselves – It feels safe enough to have ‘just the one’ – and then within a week, ALL their old habits are back, and they are smoking a pack a day again.

And yet at the same party is also someone who ONLY smokes 2-3 cigarettes with some drinks at a party every so often, but who never feel the need to smoke in between parties.

So what is going on here?

What is the difference between the non-smoker and the ex-smoker who has already quit smoking?

The ex-smoker is unable to have the occasional smoke in the same way that a ‘social smoker’ can.

What are the similarities and differences? Let us look at the different groups to check this out.

People who have never smoked.

If forced to smoke a cigarette they would get the same ‘head rush’ chemical effect of the nicotine. But then that would be it. Of course, if they did it again and again they run the risk of triggering the brain changes that create nicotine addiction and then smoking addiction.

People who have the occasional social smokes at a party.

This group will also get the same expected chemical effects of inhaling nicotine with the ‘head rush’. But they seem to have no compulsions that force them to continue doing this in the repetitive manner of an addiction. Their brains have not made any changes as a result of smoking, and they have NOT built up any smoking habits and triggers. Their brains do not scream at them that they MUST light up a smoke in any given situation. And having ONE does not seem to trigger the need to have more and more.

If they didn’t go to another party for the rest of the year, they wouldn’t even miss the smokes.

They are social smokers in the same way that someone who has a single glass of wine at the restaurant is a ‘social drinker’ – rather than someone who is a ‘problem drinker’ or an ‘alcoholic’.

If you were to do clinical studies on the brains of occasional social smokers and occasional social drinkers, then they would be similar when it comes to their response to these substances.

Today these studies are done using what are called Functional MRI (magnetic resonance scan) scans. Researchers can run an MRI on the brain while showing relevant graphics or video clips. These 2 groups would not have a emotionally charged response to being shown videos relating to either smoking or drinking.

People who have already quit smoking and are now Ex-Smokers.

For the ex-smoker, having the one smoke seems to unleash ‘the smoking monster’ to allow it to escape from the prison cell where they had finally managed to lock it away. And once out it is free to torment them with cravings all over again.

So what is that? Obviously, it is not a monster!

Run video clips that portray smoking- in the ex-smoker’s favourite trigger situations- and their brain’s reward centre would ‘light up’. And from here other related nearby centres would also light up. For the ex-smoker in the MRI machine at this time, all of this would feel like a compulsive urge to want to light up another smoke. It is acting to wake up and trigger their COMPULSIVE CRAVINGS to light up.

The same MRI response occurs with other drugs of addiction, and even with behavioural addictions to gambling and sex.

Show the particular video clip of the addictive drug or behaviour and several parts of the brain all light up.

So what is happening in these brain centres that light up when shown ‘favourite’ smoking scenes.

A smoker has an addiction and a habit. Right?

The addiction is to nicotine.

The process of repetitively inhaling nicotine resets the Reward Centre so that it can only function normally when being flooded with nicotine. The Reward Centre is Dependent on nicotine and it experiences nicotine Withdrawals when the blood levels drop.

But did you realise that the part of the brain that was dependent on nicotine restores back to factory settings, like it used to be, within a few short weeks of not having any nicotine.

No nicotine dependency, and no nicotine withdrawals. The nicotine addiction is gone!

The HABIT is for Lighting up a Smoke.

If only it were so simple with the smoking habit.

Habits are actually bits of programming that the brain has written.

The brain has learnt over time, how to keep the nicotine withdrawals at bay by lighting up a smoke. It then writes a ‘light up a smoke’ program prompting the individual to repeat this behaviour. And this program is a HABIT. Continue to repeat this and the program becomes stamped as permanent.

Then over time a second set of programs are written, and these relate to WHEN and WHERE the brain expects to get this ‘light up a smoke’ fix. These become all the TRIGGERS for craving a smoke. Long-term smokers have a life full of triggers for craving a smoke. Any situation where you routinely smoke gets its own bit of programming.

So an ex-smoker has all these smoking-related bits of programming in their brain.

What happens to these ‘light up a smoke’ programs after quitting smoking?

Do they disappear?

Unfortunately, the answer is NO.

Habits once properly established are permanent bits of programming.

They are either:

SWITCHED ON when in use

Or in

STAND-BY mode when not in use.


Brain design is the reason. Mammal brains spend a lot of effort programming useful habits. And if those habits are no longer useful, then the brain doesn’t erase the programs. If they become useful again in the future, then at least the program doesn’t have to be rebuilt.

This may be good design out in the world in terms of useful survival tactics. But not so useful when it comes to addictive drugs and behaviours.

By the Way. The brains of Social Smokers do NOT have any smoking related programs written, and so there is nothing to switch back on.

Now let’s go to the ex-smoker who is having a Functional MRI brain scan test.

Show them their all-time favourite smoking triggers, and the brain notices and runs a bit of current through the specific programs it has for these. This causes these areas to light up on the scan, and the person experiences this as an Urge and Craving to Smoke a Cigarette.

Now let’s go back to our 6-month ex-smoker at the party.

Having a couple of cigarettes runs a current through their smoking programs, AND switches them back on and out of stand-by mode. Unfortunately, these programs also bring with them all of those lovely smoking cravings. As any ex-smoker who has relapsed knows, having a few ciggies at the party is more than likely to switch their smoking habit addiction back on again. And within 2-3 weeks they are back where they started, and it is as though they had never quit for those 6 months.

The take home message.

The brains of ex-smokers have brains full of established smoking-related programs, that are SWITCHED OFF, but that can SWITCH ON again in a moment.

All it takes is a smoke.

And this is why a smoker who has quit can never be a social smoker.

And this is how ‘The Just One Trap’ works.

And why an ex-smoker should follow ‘The Not One Puff Rule’.