Lost That Smoking Feeling: Emotions sputter as cigarette motivator

Cigarette smokers have reported on many questionnaires that sadness, nervousness, and other unpleasant feelings prompt their tobacco intake. Many researchers have inhaled those accounts and argued that people continue to smoke cigarettes to quell nasty moods triggered by the first pangs of nicotine withdrawal.

It may be time for researchers to kick that habit. The first detailed effort to monitor the reactions of cigarette smokers as they carry out their daily activities finds that they light up at times when they feel neither better nor worse than at times when they don’t begin smoking.

“I was very surprised at this finding,” says psychologist Saul Shiffman of the University of Pittsburgh, who directed the new investigation. “It demonstrates the danger of relying only on people’s beliefs about their past emotional reactions rather than tracking emotions from moment to moment.”

Cigarette smoking showed a modest relationship to the presence of other cigarette smokers, a sense of restlessness, participation in leisure activities, and consumption of alcohol, food, and coffee, Shiffman and his coworkers report in the November Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

People were most likely to reach for a smoke when they reported a low-to-moderate rise in their subjective urge to smoke. The findings are consistent with past suggestions that cigarette smokers anticipate their nicotine urges and light up quickly enough to stay within a personal comfort zone, Shiffman says.

The research team monitored 304 cigarette smokers who had enrolled in but not yet started a smoking-cessation program. Volunteers, who ranged in age from 34 to 54, had smoked an average of 28 cigarettes daily for between 13 and 32 years. Nearly all were white and high school graduates, and most were female.

For 1 week, each participant pressed a key on a handheld computer to record every cigarette that he or she smoked. Each day on four or five occasions when volunteers were about to smoke, they responded to computer prompts by pressing keys to note their current emotional state, smoking urge, location, and activities.

The computer asked for the same information at four or five randomly selected times each day when the volunteers weren’t lighting up.

Smoking restrictions in public places led to a decline but not an absence of cigarette use, Shiffman says. For 22 percent of all cigarettes consumed during the study, participants reported smoking in areas where smoking was either forbidden or discouraged.

Analyses of smoking and nonsmoking occasions in cigarette-tolerant settings yielded no evidence of a link between cigarette use and either negative or positive emotions.

These findings need to be confirmed among people who smoke fewer cigarettes per day and who don’t want to stop smoking, Shiffman notes.

Scientists who study nicotine dependence are nonetheless intrigued by the implication that emotional responses exert little control over cigarette use by regular smokers. “I would have predicted exactly the opposite,” says psychologist John R. Hughes of the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Still, Hughes adds, emotional reactions in particular social settings influence decisions both to start and to stop cigarette use.

Shiffman’s results “are striking and deserve a lot of attention,” remarks psychologist Timothy B. Baker of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Smokers may respond unconsciously to subtle internal and environmental cues that prompt their lighting up, Baker suggests. In this way, they may avoid unpleasant feelings triggered by nicotine withdrawal.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.