Craving for cigarettes is more to do with the mind than the addictive influence of nicotine. In other words, it is the psychological element of smoking that makes one addicted to cigarettes, a new study conducted by Israeli scientists has revealed.

The psychological element of smoking is the key factor deciding the intensity of craving for cigarettes in a smoker compared to the physiological effects of nicotine as an addictive chemical, says Dr. Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology.

"These findings might not be popular with advocates of the nicotine addiction theory, because they undermine the physiological role of nicotine and emphasize mind over matter when it comes to smoking," says Dr. Dar, in his new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Dr. Reuven Dar and his colleagues reached these conclusions after analyzing the data from two landmark studies.

The researchers monitored smoking behavior and craving levels of in-flight attendants, both women and men, who worked at the Israeli airline El Al. They were monitored during two flights — a long flight of between 10 to 13 hours like Tel Aviv to New York and a two-hop shorter trip from Israel to Europe and back, each leg lasting three to five hours.

The study team then analyzed the responses of the El Al staff to a questionnaire and found that the duration of the flight had no significant impact on craving levels. In fact it was similar for short and long flights. Moreover, craving levels at the end of each short flight were much higher than those at the end of the long flight. This showed that cravings increased in anticipation of the flight landing, whatever the flight's total duration.

Therefore, the craving effect is produced by psychological reasons rather than by the physiological effects of nicotine deprivation.

A similar study conducted in 2005 amongst religious Jews, forbidden by their religion to smoke on the Sabbath, also found nicotine to be not addictive as physiological addictions are usually defined.

It is not that nicotine plays no role. The chemical does have a physiological role in increasing cognitive abilities such as attention and memory, it's not an addictive substance like heroin, which creates true systemic and biologically-based withdrawal symptoms in the body of the user, Dr Dar says.

He believes the latest research will help clinicians and health authorities develop more successful smoking cessation programs than those utilizing expensive nicotine patches or gum.