Study: How do you make people quit smoking? Make cigarettes suck

What if smoking wasn't addictive?

What if smoking wasn't addictive? Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s the unsolvable riddle of public health.

Cigarettes are both incredibly poisonous and ridiculously addictive. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die every year because they continue to smoke them. So how do you get them to stop?

And right now, the million-dollar answer seems to be… well… what if they weren’t addictive? What if they were just... kinda gross?

Last march, the Food and Drug Administration floated a possible new rule that would lower the level of nicotine -- the ingredient that makes smoking so addictive -- in all cigarettes and tobacco-burning products sold in the United States. The hope is that if cigarettes were virtually non-habit-forming, nobody would make a habit of smoking them.

University of Minneseota psychiatry professor Dorothy Hatsukami’s recent study would be one of several trying to confirm this.

Surprise: They were pretty much right. Out of the study’s 1,250-smoker sample, volunteers who had their smokes’ nicotine levels dramatically reduced right away – down to just 2 or 3 percent of what you’d find in a market-grade cigarette – smoked less and had fewer carcinogens throwing a party up in their bodies.

The results may as well have been peer-reviewed with a resounding “duh.” Of course taking the addictive drug out of cigarettes would make people want to smoke them less.

The whole thing seems... obvious! Then again, it’s the inverse of the approach we’ve been taking for years: creating something just as addictive, but without all the carcinogenic tar and stuff. That’s one of the big selling points for e-cigarettes.

The thing is, e-cigarettes aren’t regulated by the government, so there’s no telling exactly what is in that tasty e-cig juice, other than an unspecified helping of nicotine and whatever makes it smell like strawberry lip gloss.

Plus, kids love them. A 2017 Department of Health survey found 19 percent of Minnesota high school students reported using vaping devices. And a report the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has found that teens who vape are actually more likely to take up cigarettes, not less.

So, now that we have this scientific evidence that dumping nicotine works, are we off to a world where half a million American smokers don’t die preventable deaths every year? Not exactly.

First of all, Hatsukami’s cold turkey method wasn’t a silver bullet. That group of smokers was the most likely to experience withdrawal symptoms and quit the study altogether. If this rule actually went into effect in the United States, odds are, smokers would be scrambling to get their nicotine some other way.

Hatsukami wants to take the next logical step – a study where participants have the nicotine in their cigarettes reduced, and access to all sorts of buckwild nicotine products, including e-cigarettes. Will they end up quitting, or just switching habits? And will they be any healthier for it?

“We’ll see,” she says.

Meanwhile, this “make cigarettes suck” campaign can’t get underway until the Food and Drug Administration reviews all the public comments on the issue… including the ones from the tobacco industry. If anyone is going to have some qualms with making cigarettes suck, it’s probably going to be them.