"The sensory components—the taste of it, the feel of inhaled smoke—these are an important part of why people smoke," says Joseph McClernon, PhD, an assistant research professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center.
And they are also an important part of why people quit. "Taste can potentially help us explain who smokes and who doesn’t," says McClernon.
A little chocolate with your cigarette?
A typical cigarette may include cocoa, honey, vanilla, and licorice. While the taste of a particular brand has a lot to do with its tobacco blend, hundreds of additives may be included to smooth out the tobacco’s rough edges and create a more delicious puff.
This may sound like nothing more than a tricky way of winning your loyalty to a particular brand—or to cigarettes in general. But many of these additives can be dangerous when inhaled. "The additives are found in a lot of products that are eaten and are safe, but when burned they’re different products," explains K. Michael Cummings, PhD, chair of the department of health behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.
Cocoa, for example, is a nice treat for a cold winter’s night when mixed in its powdered form with hot milk. But when burned in a cigarette, cocoa produces bromine gas, which both dilates and anesthetizes the lungs, maximizing their absorption of smoke and nicotine.
"Bitter tasters" are less likely to smoke
Not everyone is susceptible to the sweet lure of cigarettes’ taste. So-called bitter tasters are less likely to cite taste as a motivating factor for smoking—and less likely to smoke in the first place.
This category of smoker was investigated in a 2001 study published in Addictive Behaviors; researchers at the National Institutes of Health compared subjects’ genetic ability to recognize bitter flavors with their likelihood of smoking and their motivations for lighting up.
The study found that at the other end of the spectrum from bitter tasters were smokers with very little bitter sensitivity ("nontasters"), who were at higher risk for heavy smoking and therefore more likely to become addicted to nicotine.
Some food makes smoking taste better
If you’re not genetically programmed to find smoking hard to quit, maybe it’s the food you eat that makes cigarettes so enticing.
A 2007 study—led by McClernon and published by Duke University Medical Center in Nicotine & Tobacco Research—found that certain foods enhance smoking, while other foods get in the way of one's enjoyment of a cigarette. Red meat, coffee, and alcohol seem to make cigarettes taste better, while fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and noncaffeinated beverages such as water and juice were most often cited as interfering with the taste.
This may explain the coffee-cigarette connection as well. "The conventional wisdom has been that there’s something about the combination of nicotine and caffeine that smokers like," McClernon says, referring to theories that the two substances may complement each other chemically. "But it may simply be that they taste better together—like Oreos and cold milk."
The research is preliminary, but it does suggest a decent strategy for quitting smoking. Grabbing a celery or carrot stick might indeed do more than just distract you from your cigarette craving.