General Health Friday March 16, 2012

What is the most effective incentive for smokers to quit the habit?

When considered objectively, smoking is an odd habit. There seems little logic in the idea that people could become so dependent on what is essentially a chemical stick that is set on fire, put in the mouth and inhaled, sending various carcinogens streaming into the lungs and the bloodstream to reap health havoc. And yet thousands of people continue to smoke in the UK, despite numerous health campaigns warning of the health costs of the habit.

What the persistence of smoking tells us, perhaps more than any other habit, is that people are awfully good at ignoring health warnings. Common sense would suggest that knowing that around 80% of lung cancer cases occur in smokers is enough to convince anyone to quit, but this fact - one of many well-publicised health warnings for smokers - does not tend to provide people with enough of an incentive to quit smoking for good. Health facts may inspire people to attempt to quit smoking, but doing so permanently is a notoriously difficult task. Anyone who is willing to commit to the challenge and see it through requires strong motivation in order to succeed.

Clearly, knowing the health risks of smoking is not enough on its own for most people, so what are the more effective incentives? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the health risks, understandably, become more of a factor for people who quit smoking when they are personally affected by them, for example if they or a close family member develops an associated complication such as cancer. Some people are convinced when they consider the financial benefits of stopping smoking as well as the health benefits. Many women choose to stop smoking when they fall pregnant, when the adverse effects place their child at risk.

In the UK, cigarette companies are required by law to include graphic health warnings on their packaging in a bid to curb smoking rates and encourage people to quit. This seems like a rational basis for an effective campaign if one assumes that fear is enough of an incentive for smokers to quit. However, researchers at Canterbury Christ Church University have investigated this assumption to see if fear really is enough of a motivating factor for smokers. The research involved smokers reading a summary of negative attitudes from non-smokers towards smoking. According to their conclusions, smokers expressed a stronger intention to quit smoking after reading these summaries than they did after being exposed to other methods, such as graphic anti-smoking messages on cigarette packets.

It seems logical to assume that no single anti-smoking measure, be it an educational campaign or some form of legislation on packaging, is effective enough on its own to motivate smokers to quit for good. A combination of complementary methods will surely be the most successful. After all, the real difficulty is not in getting smokers to decide not to smoke one packet. It is in making sure they never pick up another packet again.

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