Further Reading

Why aren't I and my friends addicted to cigarettes?

Dear Stanton:

I am 30 years old and essentially a non-smoker. Most everyone I know is a non-smoker. The other night I was in a bar with some friends, all except one non-smokers. Because the one smoker was smoking, two of my "non-smoker" friends (ages 35 and 45) had a cigarette, as did I. On talking, I discovered that these two people, like my wife and I, occasionally smoke a cigarette in social situations, but have never been addicted smokers or had any trouble "quitting."

In college I smoked a cigarette or two most days, and sometimes more. I never consciously quit smoking, never had cravings and never had any trouble not smoking when it didn't fit in with my surroundings. Both of my sisters smoked when they were younger, both more than I did, but they each quit in their mid-20s with no special effort. I believe each of them will still occasionally have a cigarette in social situations.

I have seen some rather extreme statistics, that 90 % of smokers are addicted and that a person who smokes 4 cigarettes is not likely to quit until he/she smokes 400,000 more.

While I am certainly aware of the addictive power of cigarettes, it seems from my own experience and those of so many people I know that these statistics must be exaggerated.

What do you know about non-addicted smokers? How many of us are there? Why have we, without any special effort, been able to do what the popular press (and many smokers) thinks is impossible?

Thanks in advance for your reply.

John


Dear John:

Thank you for your very intriguing letter. I too suspect there are more cigarette "chippers" than commonly thought. Originally, research by Saul Shiffman dealt with chippers as though they were circus freaks. However, a recent survey of 5,000 Minnesota workers published in the September, 1996 issue of the prestigious American Journal of Public Health showed "a substantial proportion of smokers are low-rate users and suggest[s] that the proportion may be rising" (D.J. Henrikus, W.R. Jeffery, H.A. Lando, "Occasional smoking in a Minnesota working population," American Journal of Public Health, 86, 1260-1266, 1996). While your experience is not well-represented in conventional research on smoking (Jack Henningfield is the government source usually quoted to show that 90% of smokers are addicted), this latest survey seems to show you and your friends are not uncommon, and may even form the majority of those who smoke in a given year.

Of course, saying that the number of such smokers is larger than thought and may be rising contradicts the deterministic model of cigarette smoking that runs through our American veins (and, remember, I was the one who, in Love and Addiction in 1975 told people that smokers were addicted exactly as were heroin addicts). As I pointed out to Robin Room in our debate over "exposure" models of addiction in 1987, where he said he doubted I wanted to argue that controlled use of tobacco was very likely, I noted that when travelling in Europe I found a majority of people I encountered seemed to be occasional smokers, puffing on a cig after a meal, for instance. (I also marvel when in France and elsewhere in Europe that coffee-loving people, who drink caffeine-concentrated brews and might be thought to be more addicted that Americans to this substance, do not like Americans drink coffee around the clock at their offices, but restrict their drinking to sit-down meals.)

If this was not the case in the U.S., then perhaps this had something to do with our exaggeratedly deterministic models of addiction, applied with cigarettes and coffee as well as to illicit drugs. The evidence that casual smokers are growing is fascinating (although, as always, it may be that researchers have just become more diligent in seeking them). Perhaps it will be with smoking that we learn (as we seemingly cannot with other drugs) that addiction is not an inevitable style of drug use with any substance.

Thanks again for "confessing" to non-addicted smoking. Your letter was perfect (except that "exaggerated" has two "g"s).

Stanton


Dear Stanton,

Given all of the publicity tobacco has been given in the press as an "addictive drug," the government's attempts to regulate it, and the frequent advertisments for different "therapies" to quit, do you believe these events may create a cultural environment where people will find it even harder to kick the smoking habit than in the past?  Given that most people who quit do so on their own, couldn't pushing the belief in "addictive tobacco" create a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading more and more people to fail at quitting and increasing lung cancer and other adverse health effects? Do you know of any recent data that measures the number of people who quit smoking and how?

Thanks again.

Rob Ryley


Dear Rob:

I think so.  My answer above points out the recent finding of more "chippers," but I also agree that a large group of people will decide that they will be less able to remain unhooked/get off cigarettes themselves given all the marketing of nicotine dependence, which as I note is already more true here that among the smokers I encounter from Europe and elsewhere.

Stanton

Further reading:

Peele, S. (1991), Cold turkey: Is smoking an addiction? Reason, pp. 54-55.