TORONTO - Smoking is not just a bad practice but a serious addiction that makes quitting difficult, the Ontario Lung Association said Thursday as it called for a ban on referring to lighting up as a "habit."

The media, government and the public should drop the word "habit" to help change the off-base attitude that smokers are dealing with a moral, not a medical, issue, the association said.

Many believe smokers could easily butt out if only they had enough willpower, but the fact is nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, association president George Habib said.

Dr. Peter Selby with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health said down grading addiction as simply a habit keeps smokers from understanding the real hold cigarettes have on them.

"If they recognize that, wait a minute, this is more than just a habit, or that it's not a habit but it's an addiction, then they'll say the next step is 'let me go and get some help for it,"' said Selby.

Quitting smoking after 32 years was the hardest thing Toronto's Allan Hobbs ever did.

Raised by a family of smokers, he lit his first cigarette at 18. He tried to quit several times but was newly motivated after watching his father and uncle die from smoking-related illnesses in the summer of 2007. Hobbs used a smoking cessation aid and quit smoking that fall at the age of 50.

Now 54, Hobbs can admit he knew he was addicted but said many smokers don't want to admit that to themselves.

"It's hard to admit you have an addiction as opposed to a habit," he said. "But if you're a daily smoker who buys cigarettes regularly and has to leave at 10:30 for your morning cigarette break it's an addiction... and it controls you," he said.

A Leger Marketing survey of 1,011 Ontario adults earlier this month found almost one in five smokers said they believed smoking is only a habit. About 27 per cent of smokers surveyed believed smoking is an addiction, while 35 per cent of former smokers and 46 per cent of non-smokers recognized it as an addiction.

Smokers have been seduced by marketing campaigns designed to convince them lighting up is just a lifestyle, said Selby.

"We've seen that kind of clever marketing," he said.

"Smokers then internalize the idea...when in fact they've been very cleverly addicted to a very dangerous product by having nicotine delivered to their brains in a very addictive format."

About five million Canadians smoke, the association said. About two million of those live in Ontario, and at least half have tried to quit in the past year without success.

Seventy-nine per cent of smokers surveyed said they would be more likely to try at least one smoking cessation medication if they were free of charge.

Habib said most smokers can't quit cold turkey and politicians need to step up.

He advocates counselling, nicotine replacement therapies and medications that people can afford through a drug plan.

The association's 'abolish the word habit' program is being sponsored by the drug company Pfizer Canada Inc.