The Strongest Emotional Trigger For Smoking Could Be Sadness
“Pleasure and just an overall good feeling” — this is the most likely answer you’ll get if you ask someone why they’re smoking. And it’s true: the nicotine in cigarettes can eventually result in feelings of euphoria and an elevated mood.
But ask a smoker why they smoke, and you will come across a myriad different reasons triggered by different experiences. These could include stress, anger, joy, fatigue, sociability and so on. With over one billion cigarette smokers in the world, the reason could literally be anything.
But a new study by Harvard University researchers found that sadness, specifically, provokes the use of cigarettes more than any other negative emotion. And sad feelings don’t only provoke cigarette use among smokers, but can actually lead to the use of cigarettes in non-smokers (more than any other negative emotion).
“The conventional wisdom in the field was that any type of negative feelings, whether it’s anger, disgust, stress, sadness, fear, or shame, would make individuals more likely to use an addictive drug,” lead researcher Dr Charles Dorison said in a statement.
“Our work suggests that the reality is much more nuanced than the idea of ‘feel bad, smoke more.’ Specifically, we find that sadness appears to be an especially potent trigger of addictive substance use.”
How did they reach this conclusion?
The researchers analysed four different studies — ranging from data from a national survey of more than 10 000 individuals done over 20 years, to experimentally designed studies to look at the effect of negative emotions on substance use, and more specifically, tobacco. The central finding was that sadness significantly increased people’s cravings to smoke more than any other negative emotion.
Over and above finding that sadness was the leading emotional trigger, researchers also found that sadness was the leading negative emotion for relapsing back into smoking even 10 to 20 years later. Participants who found themselves in what the study refers to as ‘sad conditions’ were also observed to have inhaled longer and deeper per puff.
Why the specificity matters
Now you might be thinking: “Okay, anyone could have guessed that — why was science needed to back it up?” That’s a good question that the study text answers.
“The epidemic of deaths attributable to addictive substances, including tobacco, highlights the need to better understand ways in which emotions drive substance craving and consumption,” the study says.
It goes on to explain that these results, and this type of specificity, can have a far-reaching impact on the design of anti-smoking public service announcements. Think of all the anti-smoking content you’ve seen on different platforms, it’s always a dark image that — in simple terms — gives off ‘sad vibes’.
“[This] could unintentionally increase cigarette cravings among smokers if they do trigger sadness,” the study says.
Dr Dorison believes that understanding this nuance/detail, and not just simply generalising it to undefined negative emotions, is important in shedding a light on addressing the epidemic that is smoking.
“We need insights across disciplines, including psychology, behavioural economics, and public health, to confront this threat effectively.”