Today's Smokers Are Having a Harder Time Quitting -- What Changed?

06/02/2015 10:33 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Over the last 25 years, cigarette consumption by smokers in the United States decreased by almost one-third. Over that same period, however, many tobacco companies reengineered cigarettes to more efficiently deliver the nicotine that keeps their customers coming back (1,2). This is called the "yield." Increased yield means smokers, even if they smoke fewer cigarettes per day, still get plenty of nicotine. In other words, most of today's cigarettes are not the same ones your mother or father smoked.

Not only are today's cigarettes different -- so are smokers. They are more likely to experience stress, worry, and depression regardless of their income (3). Recent research shows that it is quitting that brings stress relief rather than the other way around; cigarette addiction itself is a source of stress, anxiety, and depression (4,5) As the number of smoke-free environments increased, and because smokers smoke fewer cigarettes on average, today's smokers generally wait longer between cigarettes. This delay increases the psychological and emotional reward value of each cigarette. At the same time, because they can't smoke whenever they want, the timing is often uncertain, and the payoff -- being able to light up -- is irregular. Paradoxically, this sort of "intermittent" sporadic or random reinforcement is actually the strongest form of psychological reinforcement, thus making current patterns of smoking behavior harder to extinguish. Waiting to smoke is not quitting smoking!

Another factor making it harder to quit smoking today is that funding for tobacco prevention has been cut significantly. This illustrates the diminished importance society places on efforts to help smokers. Meanwhile, tobacco companies spend $18 to market their products for every dollar spent to support smokers and reduce smoking (6). Ostracized from private homes, work, cars, and public spaces, many smokers report high levels of shame when they leave social gatherings to get a nicotine fix. Our cultural norm of self-help places the burden of quitting, and blame of failure, squarely on smokers' shoulders. Self-help, however, is clearly not working for many struggling to quit.

The United States has made remarkable progress against smoking, but most of that progress occurred in the 40 years before 2004, when the adult smoking rate was cut about in half to 20.9 percent. The most recent data, released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on May 22, 2015 (7), is that the median prevalence of cigarette smoking in 2011 was 21.2 percent. Even adjusting for changes in the way smoking rates are being measured, this is higher, not lower, than the 20.9 percent reported 7 years earlier! For 2012, the smoking rate was 19.6, and for 2013 it was 19.0, barely budging from a decade earlier!

As we observed World No Tobacco Day 2015 this past Sunday, May 31, many smokers continued to find themselves in a trap set for them by cigarettes. Cigarettes are designed for addiction and not for recreational "take it or leave it" use. Many of today's smokers therefore find themselves caught between a lack of constructive social and psychological support, and the destructive effects of highly nicotine-efficient cigarettes, creating a tobacco control stalemate.

What can be done?

We can start by requiring manufacturers to limit or taper permitted nicotine levels in cigarettes. All tobacco and nicotine products should be standardized and openly disclose their nicotine levels, and how much is absorbed into smokers' bodies the same way people track calories or carbohydrates.

Here are five quick tips for smokers trying to quit:

  1. Try to challenge beliefs that justify smoking. Beliefs such as "I smoke because I'm stressed," "I'll quit tomorrow," "I'll only smoke one," and "I'm not strong enough to quit" are common and tend to cement smoking as a behavior.
  2. Consider these three "triggers" to smoking, and be prepared with strategies to cope with them: 1) Other smokers: Avoid other smokers or ask them not to smoke around you, 2) Alcohol: Avoid alcohol or limit drinks as necessary, and 3) Emotional stress: Learn to adjust to situations without smoking.
  3. With cigarettes delivering a stronger dose of nicotine, consider using two forms of NRT. The combined NRT approach not only delivers nicotine more aggressively to replace that from cigarettes, the U.S public Health Service 2008 update (8) found this to be the best of the medical options available for helping smokers quit.
  4. Beware of cutting down as a strategy to quit unless you schedule your reduction of smoking in advance for a limited and specific amount of time prior to a target quit date. Stalling, delaying, or reducing smoking are tactics to avoid smoking, but are also ways to avoid quitting. Randomly reducing to quit is a common cessation strategy which recent research suggests is associated with lower cessation success rates. A 2013 Gallup poll (9) found smokers who succeed are more likely to quit abruptly (48 percent) vs. gradually (2 percent). A short-term technique for building confidence to prepare a successful quit day is smoking by the clock, otherwise known as "scheduled smoking" (10).
  5. Download an app on your smartphone so you always have access to scientifically supported psychological and behavioral techniques. Such an app should help you prepare for and plan a successful quit day, as well as offer relapse prevention tools. It is critical that the app address not only the physical ties to your smoking addiction, but also the emotional side. Of course, I would like to highlight my own Up in Smoke app for iPhone, iPad Android, and the web!

Dr. Daniel Seidman, a clinical psychologist, is director of smoking cessation services at Columbia University Medical Center. He is author of the book Smoke-Free in 30 Days and of the "Up in Smoke" app from Mental Workout for iPhone, iPad, Android, Mac, and PC.


  1. Variation in nicotine intake in U.S. Cigarette smokers Over the Past 25 Years: evidence From nHanes surveys. Martin J. Jarvis, Gary A.Giovino, Richard J. O'Connor, Lynn T. Kozlowski, John T. Bernert. SRNT Journal Research Advance Access published July 25, 2014
  2. Recent increases in efficiency in cigarette nicotine delivery:implications for tobacco Control. Thomas Land, Lois Keithly, Kevin Kane, Lili Chen, Mark Paskowsky , Doris Cullen, Rashelle B. Hayes, Wenjun Li. SRNT Journal Advance Access published January 13, 2014
  3. 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
  4. Tanya R. Schlam, Megan E. Piper, Jessica W. Cook, Michael C. Fiore and Timothy B. Baker. "Life 1 Year After a Quit Attempt: Real-Time Reports of Quitters and Continuing Smokers." Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 44, Issue 3, 309-319. December, 2012.
  5. West R, Brown J (2015) How much improvement in mental health can be expected when people stop smoking? Findings from a national survey, Smoking in Britain, 3,6.
  6. Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Broken Promises to Our Children: The 1998 State Tobacco Settlement Fourteen Years Later (Updated in 2014).
  7. State-Specific Prevalence of Current Cigarette Smoking and Smokeless Tobacco Use Among Adults Aged ≥18 years -United States, 2011-2013. CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) May 22, 2015 / Vol. 64 / 19. See Table 1.
  8. The 2008 update to Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Service May 2008. See page 109
  10. The effects of smoking schedules on cessation outcome: Can we improve on common methods of gradual and abrupt nicotine withdrawal? Cinciripini, Paul M.; Lapitsky, Lynn; Seay, Sheila; Wallfisch, Annette; Kitchens, Karen; Van Vunakis, Helen. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 63(3), Jun 1995, 388-399.