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:
- 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.
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.