05/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is President Obama Addicted To Nicotine?

News sources report that President Obama still sneaks an occasional cigarette now and then. What's the deal with that? He's a highly intelligent man - a man with enormous self-control in other areas of his life. Doesn't he know that smoking is bad for him? Of course he does. Then why can't he exercise that famous self-control of his and quit smoking? Because it's likely he's an addict - a nicotine addict.

He's not alone. Some 43 million Americans smoke - 33 million of them smoke daily. Worldwide, a staggering 1.2 billion people smoke - roughly one-fifth of the world's population. Why are all these people doing something that will likely sicken and kill them? There's a very good chance that many, if not most, are addicts, too.

Several years ago I read a fascinating study about addictive substances. Researchers asked doctors to rate addictive substances on a scale of zero to 100 - with a score of 100 being the most addictive, and zero being not addictive at all. The list of substances was lengthy, including: alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, prescription pills of various types, cocaine, nicotine, crack cocaine, marijuana, heroin, morphine, crystal meth, and more.

I was shocked to see nicotine at the top of the list - it scored a whopping 99! Doctors ranked nicotine as THE most addictive substance - more addictive than crystal meth, heroin, and crack cocaine, all of which scored in the 97 to 98 range. The conclusion: Difficulty in kicking a smoking habit ranks right up there with difficulty in kicking a crack cocaine or heroin habit.

(SIDE NOTE: In case anyone's interested, chocolate scored around 70 on the scale of addictiveness.)

I have never been a smoker myself, but reading that research gave me new compassion for smokers. I've spent the past 20 years studying addiction and I've seen how chemical withdrawal wracks a person - physically, mentally, and emotionally. I've struggled with and given up my own addictions to alcohol and prescription pills, but my discomfort was nothing like the agony that most smokers report. Many years ago my mother gave up smoking and she told me that every cell in her body screamed for nicotine - for a whole year!

We should have compassion for our President. Giving up an addiction - any addiction - is hard enough under ordinary circumstances. But Obama isn't living in ordinary circumstances. Given the enormous stress of being the Leader of the Free World, I think we should give him a lot of leeway with the smoking thing. Do we really want our President going through withdrawal while he's dealing with two wars, a shaky economy, a broken health care system, and the myriad other problems on his hands? I don't think so. Research shows that nicotine increases concentration and helps soothe the effects of stress.

Obama isn't smoking a pack a day - he's indulging in an occasional cigarette. Addiction is a progressive disease - so smoking only once in a while would indicate that the person is in the early stages of addiction, or in the final quitting stages.

I say: "Obama can quit when he's accomplished his work being President. Let him have his occasional cigarette for now."

When he's ready to quit completely, there are plenty of resources available to help him: medical assistance in the form of patches or chewing gum, hypnotherapy, and/or support groups such as Nicotine Anonymous with their highly effective 12-step process for recovery from nicotine addiction.

Some 2500 years ago, Plato wrote, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." We would do well to keep these words in mind when it comes to anyone dealing with an addiction - be it our President, our son or daughter, our neighbor or coworker. Let kindness and compassion be our watchwords.