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No one ever said it was easy giving up cigarettes. But recent Canadian research provides fresh insights into why it's so difficult to quit – and points to an innovative way to help smokers butt out once and for all.

The study, published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, found that smoking withdrawal leads to a sudden surge in a brain protein called monoamine oxidase Aw or MAO-A.

This protein, in turn, "eats up" important brain chemicals – such as serotonin – which normally keep mood on an even keel. Once these chemicals are thrown out of whack, the person may experience feelings of sadness.

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"This sad mood makes it hard for people to quit, especially in the first few days," said Jeffrey Meyer, the lead researcher and a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Dr. Meyer said the hardship of quitting may be reduced if MAO-A levels can be prevented from surging during the withdrawal phase. He noted that one type of antidepressant – moclobemide (brand name Manerix) – is already known to shut down the production of MAO-A.

He speculated that a low dose of moclobemide – possibly in combination with smoking cessation aids such as nicotine patches – may be enough to help smokers kick the habit. "It wouldn't be difficult to run a trial with these things already on the market," he added.

Meanwhile, federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq this week unveiled new warning labels for cigarette packaging. The text and gruesome pictures, depicting diseased body parts and dying patients, will cover 75 per cent of the front and back of each pack of smokes. The existing warnings, which had remained unchanged for almost a decade, cover half the package. Tobacco companies must make the switch to the bigger warnings early next year.

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