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Why Quitting Smoking Without Help Is So Hard

Understanding motivation might be the key to quitting smoking.

Quitting smoking is hard, but that statement isn't terribly exciting all on its own since most of our readers probably knew it already. Still, while we've talked about quitting smoking using nicotine replacement and medication, we haven't really touched the subject of all those people out there who just decide to give quitting smoking a try one day without those patches, gums, or pills.

Since something in the vicinity of 95% of those who try their hand at quitting smoking relapse within one year, and most of these people try to quit unaided, I think this is an important topic to touch on. Fortunately, recent research conducted in the U.K. tried to assess the personality and cognitive aspects that end up predicting who will succeed, or fail, in their quit attempt.

The effects of expectation, motivation, and impulsivity when quitting smoking

Quite a bit of research has already shown that when smokers are trying to quit (so we're talking early on during abstinence), their brains react differently to stimuli in the environment depending on the relationship between those stimuli and nicotine. Stimuli that aren't associated with smoking (or some other form of nicotine intake) get less attention and show overall less activation of important brain circuits while nicotine associated cues light up the brain just as if nicotine was on board (even though participants were drug free at the time).

Essentially, if a stimulus predicts getting a hit, the brain gets smokers to pay attention to it so that they can do whatever is necessary and get a little drug in. Throw in some of that reduced ability to control behavior that we talk about so much (like impulsivity), and which is common not only in smokers but in users of almost every other drug (heroin might be the exception) and you have a recipe for disaster, or at least for a good bit of smoking relapse. And yet if we want to fight the horrible health consequences of cigarettes, then quitting smoking has to be made easier, which nicotine replacement and medications like bupropion have done to some extent.

As part of this equation, knowing the specific predictors of early relapse in people who are quitting smoking may be useful so that professionals planning smoking interventions can do a better job of targeting the most important factors. The study recently published the journal Psychopharmacology tried to assess the relationship between the severity of smoking, the above-mentioned personality factors, and the success of the quitting attempt.

The cool thing about this study is that the 141 people who participated were assessed on a whole set of these cognitive tests twice - once after a smoking free night and a nicotine lozenge and another time after a smoking free night followed by a nicotine-free lozenge. While they couldn't tell which was which, the procedure gave the researchers an assessment off how different participants' reactions were with or without nicotine on board. Following the assessments participants were directed to begin their attempt at quitting smoking. While they were asked not to use nicotine replacement options or other medications, they were allowed to use any other resource available and were given a set of information pamphlets that explained expected side effects and likely difficulties during the quit attempt. They were then followed up after 1 week, 1 month, and 3 months. Quitting was identified as minimal smoking (less than 2 cigarettes per week) and was verified both by self report and cotinine testing. There was a small financial incentive to quitting, with people who relapsed after a week getting only £40 (about $60) and those who made it through month 3 getting £150 (about $250), though I'm pretty sure that if $200 was enough to make people quit we'd have just paid up already...

The first thing to note in the results was that 24% of the participants were still not smoking at the 33 month followup. This seems to be about on par with the usually low success rates at 1 year though I'm sure this research group will try to continue following these participants at least up to the 1 year mark and hopefully produce another paper.

The overall most reliable predictor of who quit and who relapsed ended up being the level of nicotine dependence as measured by the participants' pre-quit attempt cotinine levels and the number of cigarettes they smoked every day. Since cotinine assessments are less biased, it was the most predictive of all throughout the experiment (# of daily cigarettes was no longer predictive at 3 months). Interestingly, self reported impulsivity and smokers' initial ratings of cravings for cigarettes didn't end up predicting relapse at all, but those cognitive tests assessing the quitters' reactions to nicotine associated cues told a pretty interesting story: It seems that early on during their quitting attempt smokers who had more general interference with their cognitive function relapsed sooner. These cognitive problems can be thought of as interfering with normal thinking by nicotine-related cues and maybe even more general interference with brain function. After the 1-week follow-up, at the 1 and 3 month assessment, the odds of quitting had more to do with baseline assessments of motor impulsivity as well as those initial cotinine levels assessing the degree of nicotine dependence.

The take-home: Quitting smoking is hard for different reasons in the first week and later on

If you've ever tried to quit you've been told you that the first week is the hardest and that once you make it through that the rest is a piece of cake. While this research doesn't necessarily support that notion, since about 25% of the sample relapsed between each of the followups, it does seem to indicate that the reasons for relapse change after that first week.

It seems that the first week may be difficult because of general cognitive interference by stimuli and cues that are nicotine associated. Those cues make it hard to pay attention to much else and they interfere with normal thinking and attention process, making sticking to the quit attempt difficult. After that point, successfully quitting smoking seems to be associated more with the level of initial smoking and that damn motor impulsivity test. The finding that heavier smokers have a harder time quitting isn't new and isn't surprising, but the fact that cognitive effects and predictors of relapse change does suggest that the interventions likely to help smokers quit may need to be different during week 1 and afterward.

Overall, these findings suggest that the cognitive function problems associated with quitting smoking (or smoking in general) may recover faster than do some of the other physiological factors associated with quitting since the initial levels of smoking continued to be highly predictive throughout the 3 month period of followup. Another explanation could be that initial smoking levels affected brain function in ways not assessed by these researchers.

Since so many smokers relapse within the first week (more than 50%), it seems to me that interventions that really focus on the cognitive interference and the extreme attention towards nicotine associated cues and stimuli would be helpful for those quitting smoking. Maybe if we can reduce relapse numbers at 1 week we can have a more gradual fall-off for the following month resulting in significantly higher quit rates.

Interestingly, NIDA and other research organizations are getting really interested in the use of technologies like virtual reality for help in addiction training. It seems that in this context, these sorts of treatments might be useful in helping early quitters train to avoid that cognitive interference. Additionally, medications like modafinil, and maybe even other ADHD medication could be used very early on for those quitting smoking to help recover some of their ability to control their attention thereby reducing the power nicotine associated stimuli have over them. I guess we'll have to wait and see as those who develop interventions start integrating this research. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from readers who have quit or tried to quit: Does this research seem to support your own experiences?

© 2012 Adi Jaffe, All Rights Reserved

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Jane Powell, Lynne Dawkins, Robert West, John Powell and Alan Pickering (2010). Relapse to smoking during unaided cessation: clinical, cognitive and motivational predictors, Psychopharmacology.