What to expect when teens quit smoking

BROWN (US) — The psychological side effects for teens who quit smoking are similar to those seen in adults who have been smoking much longer, a study finds.

“Adolescents are showing—even relatively early in the dependence process—significant, strong, negative effects just after acute abstinence from smoking,” says L. Cinnamon Bidwell, a research assistant professor in psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

In controlled experiments, teens who abstained for nearly a day experienced withdrawal symptoms, smoking urges, exacerbations of negative mood, and higher provoked cravings at levels similar to those previously measured in abstaining adults, according to the study published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research.

Teens who abstained did differ from adults on two measures however: They didn’t become more irritated by certain test sounds and they didn’t lose the capacity to still feel happy (“positive affect” in the study’s parlance).

“In terms of the subjective negative reactions and the urge reactions, their patterns look remarkably similar to adults,” says Suzanne Colby, a research associate professor in psychiatry and human behavior. “That is really interesting because they are smoking fewer cigarettes per day and they’ve just been smokers for a shorter period of time.”


To conduct the research, lead author Bidwell, senior author Colby, and their team measured a variety of psychological effects on 96 teens aged 13 to 19 in three experimental groups: 22 nonsmokers, 47 smokers whom they asked to abstain for almost a full day, and 27 smokers whom they allowed to continue smoking.

On average the teen smokers coming into the study consumed about nine cigarettes a day and had been smoking for about two years.

The researchers made the psychological measurements using standardized methods at two sessions with each group. For the abstainers the first session occurred before abstention and the second occurred during it.

The team measured the smokers’ expired carbon monoxide levels in breath samples at the first session to establish a baseline and again at the second session to confirm whether abstinence, or continued smoking, had indeed occurred.

Intense cravings

Among the team’s findings was the surprising degree to which abstaining teens felt cravings even when presented with supposedly neutral cues. Their measured craving levels, even when “provoked” with cues as innocuous as a pencil and pad of paper, were about as high as when they were shown overt smoking cues, such as a lit cigarette of their favorite brand.

“They came in and their craving and negative affect were already high,” Colby says.

What the researchers observed, therefore, was not that abstaining teens have an elevated level of craving when shown smoking cues versus neutral ones, but that their craving level is elevated almost regardless of experimental cues.

But when the researchers compared abstainers to peers who either don’t smoke at all, or who didn’t have to stop smoking, the abstainers did exhibit a stronger “peak” reaction from smoking-specific cues than the other teens did.

Teen treatment

Ultimately, Bidwell and Colby hope the research will inform efforts to make smoking cessation and withdrawal treatment more effective for teens. Would it help, they ask, if treatment tried to mitigate these measurable difficulties of abstaining?

“Our findings point to withdrawal, urge (both un-cued and peak provoked), and negative affect (both un-cued and peak provoked) as candidate mediators for treatment efficacy in adolescents and suggest that future treatment trials should be designed to test mediation through these mechanisms,” the authors write.

“It remains unclear whether the lack of efficacy emerges because these treatments do not effectively reduce abstinence effects or, alternatively, because the theoretical approach is incorrect (e.g. these treatments are effective at reducing abstinence effects but reducing the negative effects abstinence does not improve cessation outcomes).”

But now researchers have a better understanding of what those negative effects of abstinence are for teens; most of those negative effects are just as intense for young, new smokers as for older, more experienced ones.

In addition to Bidwell and Colby, other authors are Jennifer Tidey and Linda Brazil of Brown, Raymond Niaura of Brown and the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies, and Adam Leventhal of the University of Southern California.

The National Cancer Institute funded the research.

Source: Brown University

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