What a drag: A brief look at cigarette smoking and nicotine dependence

Cigarette smoking among adults (i.e., those aged 18 years and over) has been a highly prevalent behaviour in Great Britain for decades but overall rates have significantly declined in recent times. Figures show that the highest recorded level of nicotine smoking among British males was in 1948 when four-fifths smoked (82%) although at that time only two-thirds smoked manufactured cigarettes (as the rest smoked pipes and/or cigars). The highest recorded level of nicotine smoking among British females was in the mid-1960s (45%) slightly higher than the prevalence rate of 41% in 1948.

A 2003 study by Dr. M. Jarvis in the journal Addiction reported that since 2000 the overall adult smoking rates in Great Britain had been declining by around 0.4% per year. More recently, the British prevalence rates of smoking remained constant at 21% between 2007 and 2009 (according to a 2013 report by Action on Smoking and Health [ASH]). According to the 2013 Office for National Statistics report, the most recent prevalence rate is 20% (21% of men and 19% of women). This equates to around 10 million British adult cigarette smokers. Smoking prevalence rates are highest in young adults. More specifically, in the 20-24 year age group, the prevalence rate of nicotine smoking is 30% in males and 28% in females. Only 1% of children are nicotine smokers at the age of 11 years. By the age of 15 years, 11% of children are regular smokers. As the 2013 ASH report noted:

“Since the mid 1970s cigarette consumption has fallen among both men and women. The overall reported number of cigarettes smoked per male and female smoker has changed little since the mid 1980s, averaging 13 cigarettes per smoker per day. As in previous years, men smoked slightly more per day on average than women and there was an association between consumption and socio-economic group. In 2011, smokers in manual occupations smoked an average of 14 cigarettes a day compared with 11 a day for those in managerial or professional groups… In 2011, 63% of smokers said they would like to stop smoking altogether. Other ways of measuring dependence include how difficult people would find it to go for a whole day without smoking and how soon they smoke after waking… In 2011, 60% of smokers said they would find it hard to go for a whole day without smoking. Eighty-one per cent of heavier smokers (20 or more a day) said they would find it difficult, compared to 32% of those smoking fewer than 10 cigarettes per day”.

Like drug addictions more generally, nicotine addiction is a complex combination of influences including genetic, pharmacological, psychological, social and environmental factors. In 2010, the US Surgeon General asserted that “there is no established consensus on criteria for diagnosing nicotine addiction” but that there are a number of symptoms can be viewed as addiction indicators such as:

  • Drug use that is highly controlled or compulsive with psychoactive effects
  • Stereotypical patterns of use
  • Continued use despite harmful effects
  • Relapse following abstinence accompanied by recurrent cravings.

A 2000 report by the Royal College of Physicians also noted that nicotine fulfils criteria for defining an addiction and states that:

“It is reasonable to conclude that nicotine delivered through tobacco smoke should be regarded as an addictive drug, and tobacco use as the means of self-administration…Cigarettes are highly efficient nicotine delivery devices and are as addictive as drugs such as heroin or cocaine.”

One of the key characteristics of drug addiction or dependence on a substance is the degree of compulsion experienced by the user. Since 1992, the British General Lifestyle Survey (which typically surveys around 15,000 adults from over 9000 households annually) has asked three questions relevant to nicotine dependence and addiction. The first is whether the person would like to stop smoking, the second is whether person would find it easy or difficult not to smoke for a whole day, and the third is how soon after waking up they smoke their first cigarette. Since 1992, there has been almost no change in any of the three measures.

The latest 2013 survey reported that 63% of smokers said they would like to stop smoking altogether and 60% felt it would be difficult for them to go a day without smoking. Four-fifths (81%) of heavy smokers (i.e., those smoking 20 or more cigarettes a day) said they would find it difficult to give up smoking compared to one-third (32%) of lighter smokers (i.e., those smoking less than 10 cigarettes a day). The average number of cigarettes smoked per day is 13, and 14% smoke a cigarette within five minutes of getting up in the morning, a figure that rises to 35% among heavy smokers who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day. Research consistently shows that approximately two-thirds of smokers want to quit the behaviour yet the majority are unable to do so, which is also suggestive of a genuine addiction. Those that do try to quit smoking typically experience a wide range of withdrawal symptoms including craving for nicotine, irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, sleep disturbances, decreased heart rate, and increased appetite or weight gain.

Outside of Great Britain, tobacco and other drug use prevalence have been examined extensively among youth and adults. For example, by the Monitoring the Future research group in the U.S. (http://monitoringthefuture.org). They reported that daily (20 or more days in last 30 days) cigarette smoking varied from 11.4% among 18 year olds to 17% among 50 year olds. One may infer that daily cigarette smoking is addictive use, though several studies measure tobacco (nicotine) addiction specifically. Tobacco addiction (dependence) among older teenagers has been found to vary between 6% and 8%. Studies have found a prevalence rates of between 1.7% to 9.6% for tobacco addiction among college students.

In a 2004 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, Dr. Jon Grant and colleagues found a prevalence of 12.8% for tobacco addiction among a U.S. national sample of adults. A few years later in a 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Dr. R.D. Goodwin and colleagues found a prevalence of 21.6% and 17.8% for tobacco addiction among a U.S. national sample of male and female adults, respectively. It appears that daily smoking demonstrates about the same level of prevalence as direct measures of dependence, particularly among adults.

In a 2011 study that I carried out with Dr. Steve Sussman and Nadra Lisha, we estimated that past year nicotine dependence prevalence in the general adult population of the U.S. as being approximately 15%. A different summary of research on the epidemiology of drug dependence has shown that of all people who initiate cigarette use, almost one-third become addicted smokers (32%), a figure that is much higher addiction rate than for users of heroin (23%), cocaine (17%), alcohol (15%) or cannabis (9%).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Action on Smoking and Health (2012). Nicotine and addiction. London: Action on Smoking and Health.

Action on Smoking and Health (2013). Smoking statistics: Who smokes and how much. London: Action on Smoking and Health.

Benowitz, N. (2010). Nicotine addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 362, 2295–2303,

Carpenter C.M., Wayne, G.F., & Connolly, G.N. (2007). The role of sensory perception in the development and targeting of tobacco products. Addiction, 102, 136-147.

Goodwin, R.D., Keyes, K.M., & Hasin, D.S. (2009). Changes in cigarette use and nicotine dependence in the United States: Evidence from the 2001-2002 wave of the National Epidemiologic Survey of Alcoholism and Related Conditions. American Journal of Public Health, 99, 1471-1477.

Grant, B.F., Hasin, D.S., Chou, P., Stinson, F.S., & Dawson, D.A. (2004a). Nicotine dependence and psychiatric disorders in the United States. Archives of General Psychiatry, 61, 1107-1115.

Information Centre for Health and Social Care (2011). Smoking drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2011. London: Information Centre for Health and Social Care.

Jarvis, M. (2003). Monitoring cigarette smoking prevalence in Britain in a timely fashion. Addiction, 98, 1569-1574.

Office for National Statistics (2012). The 2010 General Lifestyle Survey. London: Office for National Statistics.

Office for National Statistics (2013). The 2011 General Lifestyle Survey. London: Office for National Statistics.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Wald, N. & Nicolaides-Bouman, A. (1991). UK Smoking Statistics (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on December 13, 2013, in Addiction, Cigarette smoking, Compulsion, Drug use, Gender differences, Obsession, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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