If you are a cigarette smoker who wants to quit, there is some good news. Sniffing a pleasant scent can help reduce cigarette craving significantly.
Nearly 40 million Americans and a billion people worldwide smoke cigarettes. Most of those want to quit and about half of smokers say they have tried to quit within the past year. Unfortunately, almost half of those who attempt quitting relapse within two weeks, giving into their cravings. A new method is needed and scent may provide the answer.
How Cravings Work
When a person is in a state of craving a cigarette, he or she thinks that the feeling will get worse over time if not satisfied. In reality though, cravings will naturally weaken and go away if they can be resisted when most intense. Current craving solutions such as nicotine gum take too long to work, rendering them only partially effective. Other coping mechanisms rarely work in that initial period of strong cigarette craving.
Scientists speculated that using scent to distract smokers from the thought of smoking would be effective because olfaction is directly related to the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, two areas of the brain linked to drug craving. The sense of smell is also associated with emotions, which are a factor in craving substances. Smells are processed nearly instantaneously, satisfying the need for a quick response to strong cravings.
The researchers also hypothesized that those with a strong autobiographical association to a particular scent would show the biggest decrease in cravings because the memories associated with the scent would distract them from their urge to smoke.
Participants were all smokers and were told not to smoke for 8 hours before the experiment and to bring their cigarettes and a lighter with them to the lab. The researchers induced craving by asking them to light and hold a cigarette but not smoke it and were asked to rate the strength of their urge to smoke. Then they were given a pleasant scent, a neutral scent or a tobacco scent to sniff and asked to periodically rate their urge to smoke over a five-minute period. Later, participants were asked about any memories or associations they had in relation to the fragrance they smelled.
The pleasant scent performed the best, reducing cigarette cravings almost twice as well as both the neutral scent and the tobacco scent over a 5-minute time period. Those smokers with a strong association with the pleasant scent had the largest decrease in their craving to smoke, as anticipated. The effect of the scent on cigarette craving was strongest at the 5-minute mark, after which it gradually climbed back to its initial level in the 45 minutes since scent exposure.
When asked after the study if they could imagine using scent to help them quit smoking, 89% said yes.