Stopping smoking suddenly can be key to success

Cancer Research UK

Smokers who kick the habit on the spur of the moment are more likely to be successful than those who plan to stop smoking in advance - according to a new report published today in the British Medical Journal.

Almost 2,000 smokers and ex-smokers were asked about their attempts to stop smoking. The survey, funded by Cancer Research UK, revealed that almost half the attempts were spontaneous and that these were the most successful.

Almost two thirds (65 per cent) of the unplanned quit attempts had succeeded for at least six months. This compared with less than half (45 per cent) of those who planned to quit in advance.

The survey, analysed by Professor Robert West, Director of Tobacco Studies at UCL (University College London), also discovered that the statistics remained the same irrespective of how many cigarettes were smoked or of socio-economic status.

He said: “The results do not mean that we should tell everyone to stop without planning ahead. But they do tell us something about the state of mind of the smoker who wants to quit.

“Dissatisfaction with being a smoker creates a kind of tension. Then when that tension is high even quite a small trigger makes the smoker decide that the time has come to stop. If that decision is to quit some time in the future rather than right away, then in some smokers it could indicate a weaker commitment.

“This idea, based on “catastrophe theory” translates quite neatly into a simple strategy for public health campaigns which could be called the three Ts.

“Tension is created through smoke-free legislation, price increases and health warnings. But we also need to flood the smoker’s world with triggers - like short sharp TV advertisements - calling on smokers to take immediate action if they feel ready to quit. Treatment should be immediately available in the form of nicotine patches and counselling to support both planned and unplanned quit attempts.”

The theory is built on an understanding of conflicts that occur between what we are impelled to do, what we want to do and what we believe we should do, in order to predict the unpredictable.

Catastrophe theory is used to model earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; Professor West says: “To understand human motivation perhaps we need to start thinking more like seismologists!”

Jean King, Director of Tobacco Control for Cancer Research UK, said: “This is an interesting survey showing that there are different strokes for different folks. The new findings suggest that some people can stop on the spur of the moment and that is very good news for them.

“Others benefit from planning a quit date. In both cases people can always get additional support from NHS Stop Smoking clinics which have helped thousands of people give up by providing nicotine replacement therapy, support counselling and a timetabled plan for smokers if that is what they need.”

Ends

For media enquiries please contact Sally Staples at the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300. For out of hours enquiries contact the duty press officer on 07050 264059.

Notes to Editor

A new book by Professor West, called ‘Theory of Addiction’, is being launched on 31 January at a seminar on addiction at the UCL International Institute for Society and Health. For information please contact Jenny Gimpel at the UCL media relations office on 020 7679 9739; mobile: 07990 675947; email: j.gimpel@ucl.ac.uk

Robert West is Director of Tobacco Studies at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Unit in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL.