When I think of addiction, I immediately think of alcohol and drugs. Yet, addiction can take on many forms and through different psychological and brain chemistry mechanisms. I recently came upon this article from several months ago that described tanning addiction. (Insert mandatory Jersey Shore/Snooki reference here). I was amazed that UV light itself can actually cause the reward system in the brain of excessive tanners (more than 3 times a week) to turn on, measured by increased cerebral blood flow to specific areas in the brain. When the tanners got the UV light, they were satisfied (at least for a couple of days), but when the UV light was blocked without their knowledge, their desire to tan again remained.
I was trying to come up with an evolutionary reason for addiction and how people can get addicted to what seem to be very weird things. I don’t know much about neurobiology, but can the brain be trained to reward itself after repeated behaviors? Perhaps this is a survival mechanism when conditions are harsh, such as times of famine or torture? I have no idea, but it’s fascinating to me. There are some good examples of weird addictions on TLC’s My Strange Addiction. The TV show follows different people who are compelled to eat soap, dryer sheets, and even drywall. However, there are also psychological issues that may be involved in most of these cases.
What seems to be the most pressing addiction issue for the Surgeon General is tobacco use by children and teenagers. First, I want to compliment Dr. Benjamin on her sweet uniform. I know a few hipsters who would love to pair that with some skinny jeans. Anyway, she calls smoking and tobacco use a ‘pediatric epidemic’. Wow, that is a strong word, even with a quarter of U.S. high school seniors smoking. I am all for preventing people from getting addicted tobacco and trying to help them quit. Not only does this save the individual money from not buy tobacco products, but saves the government and healthcare industry billions of dollars to care for those who have destroyed their body from its use. The government seems to think fear and shock is the way to change people’s behavior. They attempted to require new warnings printed on all cigarette packs that include large images of stomas and dead bodies, but this was recently ruled unconstitutional. In an unscientific poll of late-20s/early-30s smokers that I asked, they claimed these images wouldn’t affect their cigarette use at all. And, as we learned from my post on hand washing by doctors, people get desensitized to imagery. Starting Monday, you will probably see anti-smoking advertisements on TV and in print, as the government is spending $54 billion on this campaign. It is possible these graphic ads may deter some younger children from picking up a cigarette…at least for a little while. I still remember the face of the former baseball player with a swollen face and no lower jaw from mouth cancer on a poster that was hanging in my elementary school. I applaud the federal government to take up the slack from states who won a $264 billion settlement from the tobacco industry in 1998 and have used this money for things other than tobacco education. I just hope these ads will make a difference.
Addiction is complicated and involves so many mental and physical processes working together. How can we change behavior when reward systems in the brain are so strong and addicts don’t fully understand the consequences until much later? I know there are many people working on figuring that out, and I hope more answers are discovered soon. In the meantime, take a look at this picture and answer me this: is this the skin of a smoker, the skin of a tanner, or a wallet?