Smoking Bans Don’t Decrease Smoking, Study Finds

By Dirk Hanson 06/22/11

Anti-smoking ordinances protect people from secondhand smoke, but they don’t help smokers quit.

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Smoker entering a no-smoking zone.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

Anti-smoking forces have always been on a dual mission—to protect innocent bystanders from secondhand smoke, and to encourage smokers to quit. On the first count, things have been going very well. On the second matter, however, the jury is out, but the case is not going well. Public health officials were buoyed when hospitalizations for heart attacks dropped 2.4%, indicating that maybe smoking bans were helping influence smokers to quit. However, the science journal Addiction made a comprehensive study of the influence of smoking bans on smokers, and it doesn’t look good. Using anti-smoking medications as their guide—nicotine patches and gums, Welbutrin, and Chantix—researchers found that in the nine months before a smoking ban went into effect, medications rose by 6.4% overall. Statistically significant declines in smoking took place in all but 3 of 21 locations studied. So far so good. But nine months after a ban had been put in place, prescriptions for anti-smoking medications had dropped back to baseline by exactly the same percentage. The study covered 21 countries, including the U.S. and Canada. The researchers were forced to conclude that smoke-free legislation “had no measureable impact on existing trends in smoking prevalence.”

What’s going on? Lisa Szatkowsi of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies at the University of Nottingham, one of the study authors, told Reuters: "Factors such as the provision of outdoor facilities for smoking, or spending time with smoking friends, may mean smoke free legislation does not act as a continuing stimulus to quit over time." David Abrams, of the anti-smoking group Legacy, called the results “disappointing, but not surprising." After a ban is in place, "maybe you've already skimmed the cream off the top of those who were already motivated to quit." He said results might improve with “additional encouragement from media campaigns, healthcare providers and outreach efforts.” And the original motivation for smoking bans remains unaffected. Szatkowski said that the original intent of smoke free legislation—“to reduce non-smokers’ exposure to environmental tobacco smoke”—was being achieved.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]