The Nature of Smoking Addiction and the Efficacy of Smoking-related Warnings

smoking-related warnings

The Nature of Smoking Addiction and the Efficacy of Smoking-Related Warnings

Smokers have a habit based on a dual physical and psychological dependency. These dual dependencies are the cause of their addiction to smoking and that makes quitting smoking very difficult to disrupt and break.

Those smokers, who form a conscious and deliberate intention to quit smoking, have to override their addictive impulses to “light-up” in order to exercise their willpower and resolve to quit. A very real and important issue is what type of warnings are most likely to reinforce their willpower and their resolve. What will best translate their intent to quit into actual behavioral choices not to smoke?


Smokers and other addicts are obviously motivated by the need for very short-term immediate gratification for a “fix” of nicotine (or whatever the substance is that will quell their immediate urge or craving). Addicts are less able to put off an immediate urge to satisfy their addiction and their very short-term needs in order to realize a long-run objective.

Non-addicts can plan for the future and act in a short-term manner that is consistent with long-run objectives because they can better see the connection between their short-term actions and realization of their long-run goals. Addicts cannot do this. How does this relate to the nature of smoking warnings that will be most effective and most compelling in motivating a smoker to form an intention to quit smoking? It has several implications.

smoking-related warnings


First, it seems apparent that warnings that are more distant, more remote, more removed in time and thereby less certain, less “real” and more surreal, are less likely to be as effective as are warnings that are more immediate, more current, and linked better to short-run consequences, rather than very long-run threats. These assertions, if valid, imply that the most compelling anti-smoking warnings highlight short-term or near-term consequences not, very long-term threats or consequences.

The more certain and likely the consequences of a threat, the more effective and compelling the warning will be. If the linkage between action (i.e. smoking) and consequences (e.g. more rapid aging or more severe wrinkling), is more certain than say trying to link smoking to the possibility, but hardly certainty, of a dire health consequences (i.e. cancer, emphysema, COPD), then warning smokers of more certain and more short term-run consequences will be more effective.

Secondly, a warning linked directly and clearly with some certainty to fundamental instincts and drives, like self-preservation and/or replication of our DNA, are far more likely to be much more persuasive than those that appeal to less fundamental forces. If self-preservation is, in fact, the number one priority of all animals (including humans, then why, you might ask, aren’t dire health warnings, including premature death or a debilitating medical condition, not the most effective and compelling warnings to promote quitting smoking.

Again, it is because of these threats, while existential in nature, is far off in the future, to remote and too uncertain to be most motivating, especially to younger people, to whom mortality has only a vague and unreal meaning.

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On the other hand, smoking-related warnings that can link the other behavioral imperative, that is, the drive to preserve our DNA via replicating our DNA in our offspring, may be much more compelling. If anti-smoking warnings and/or advertising/promotion campaigns, can focus on the more immediate, more certain negative consequences to a smoker’s attractiveness and their ability to be appealing to the opposite sex and to highlighting the negative impact on our chances of dating the person of your choice, or “scoring” sexually with a potential hook-up, these warnings may have more bite, more impact, again, especially on the younger generation of smokers, but also on all ages, and, particularly on women to whom physical appearance may be of more paramount importance.

While the negative impacts of smoking on our appearance and on our social acceptability are not unknown, they tend to be muted and under-utilized compared to the negative health warnings we have all heard so much about, and are already known to all, or mostly all of us.

Warnings that focus on smoking’s negative consequences on our appearing youthful, vital and vibrant and also highlighting the increased likelihood of wrinkling, age spots, yellowing skin, yellowing hair, stinky clothes and stinky breath, characteristics that are a “turn-off” to so many people who the smoker might want to attract, such warnings may have more of a chance to be effective and dissuade a smoker from smoking.

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