Social Science and Smoking: Does it Work?

If you’re a cigarette smoker, you already know that smoking is highly addictive and very harmful to your health. Smoking damages the heart and contributes to various types of cancer, all potentially leading to premature death. Smoking turns your teeth an unattractive shade of yellow, causes your skin to wrinkle, makes you smell bad and drains your bank account. This is all old news.

On the flip side, addicted smokers rarely stop to consider the benefits associated with smoking. (Yes, there are good things; otherwise, stopping would be much easier.) One of the most obvious benefits is the exclusive social club that provides regular opportunities to banter and bond with other smokers. Many people refer to this relaxing work-day respite as a “smoke break culture.”

In recent years, most cigarette smokers have become acutely aware of the growing stigma around smoking, which is no longer considered sophisticated or “cool.” Unfortunately, for most addicted smokers, this drop in social status isn’t sufficient motivation to stop.

When it comes to stopping, do proven social science tactics work? National Public Radio tried to find out.

Social Science and Smoking

America’s National Public Radio recently followed Max, a young news assistant and long-time smoker, in his attempt to quit smoking using tactics based on three established tenets of social science research. The young smoker:

  1. Vowed to put money otherwise spent on cigarettes into a savings account. If his attempt to stop smoking was successful, the money would fund a nice vacation. If he relapsed, he promised to donate the money to a certain Washington D.C. lobbying organization that he detested. Many research studies indicate this tactic is often successful and the National Institute of health claims that financial incentives are sufficient motivation for many smokers to stop.
  2. He promised to reach out to non-smoking friends for support. Smokefree.gov and other organizations report that supportive friends and family members play a significant role in helping a smoker become smoke-free.
  3. Lastly, he vowed to record a public service announcement to help other smokers kick the habit.

Did it work? A Non-Smoking Journal

In his daily audio journal, Max compared stopping to a bad breakup that feels like freedom at first, but soon grows increasingly, heartbreakingly difficult. In the early days, he experienced typical withdrawal symptoms, including severe cravings, tension, frustration, sadness, anger and irritability.

To cope with the symptoms, Max chewed gum, drank seltzer water, and spent a great deal of his time thinking about how he regretted agreeing to NPR’s one-person experiment. He compared himself to a buffalo that walks directly into a storm, reasoning that “leaning into” the cravings and emotions would help him throughout the process.

He was right, and soon, his life as a non-smoker was a little easier. Max was surprised one day to realize that instead of waking up with longing for a cigarette, he had accomplished his entire morning routine without thinking about smoking. Before long, he noticed a significant change in the way his lungs felt when he ran.

Six Months Later

Max remained smoke-free when NPR recorded the podcast six months later. He recalled calling a supportive friend at least once during that time, and he discussed his public service message, in which he compared smoking to a self-imposed prison.

Max says that every day he doesn’t smoke makes it less likely he will relapse. He knows he will never declare total victory over the addiction, but he realizes that that the cravings will continue to subside. He looks forward to a smoke-free European vacation.

Cigarette Smoking during Drug and Alcohol Treatment and Rehab

According to Psychiatric Times, there is a particularly high rate of smoking among people in drug and alcohol treatment or rehab – as many as three to four times higher than the general population.

Although this dual addiction is common, smokers are highly encouraged to stop, as smokers with substance use disorders usually start smoking at a younger age and they tend to be more dependent on nicotine. They are also more susceptible to certain types of cancer found to be associated with combined use of alcohol and tobacco.

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