UW Researchers Identify Key Reason Some Smokers May Struggle So Much to Quit

Nov. 12, 2014

UW Researchers Identify Key Reason Some Smokers May Struggle So Much to Quit

University of Wisconsin researchers have identified a key reason smokers struggle so much to break their addiction. After quitting, many smokers suffer from anhedonia, a pervasive inability to experience pleasure during life activities that one normally enjoys, according to a paper published by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

The paper is the first to show that anhedonia is a symptom of nicotine withdrawal in humans, and may be a key reason smokers who want to break their addiction to tobacco struggle to do so—especially during the first week after quitting smoking, when anhedonia spikes before eventually falling back to baseline levels. The study suggests that anhedonia might lead people back to smoking—the leading preventable cause of disease and death in America—so that they can again experience pleasure during enjoyable life events.

“One reason for this is that nicotine has powerful effects on the brain’s pleasure centers,” said lead author and UW-CTRI Researcher Dr. Jessica Cook.
The good news is that researchers found that quit-smoking medications effectively counteracted the effects of anhedonia.

“We already knew that these FDA-approved medications could help people quit, but this research may shed some light on one of the reasons why,” Cook said. “It also shows that it’s critical for people who become anhedonic after quitting to take advantage of resources out there to help them quit—especially nicotine replacement medications. These medications will help them get through that first week after they quit.” Anyone in the United States can get free help to quit by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

The paper is based on data from the Wisconsin Smokers’ Health Study, administered by researchers at the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention (UW-CTRI), and funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the NIH. During this study of 1175 smokers trying to quit, personal digital assistants prompted these smokers to answer questions four times a day for up to two weeks prior to and two weeks after their target quit date. There was a significant quit-day increase in anhedonia among those who received placebo, while this effect was nearly fully mitigated among those who received active medication.

In summary, results of this study suggest that: 1) anhedonia is a unique and significant element of tobacco withdrawal that contributes to relapse among smokers trying to quit; and, 2) nicotine replacement medication can help blunt the negative effects of anhedonia on successful quitting.


UW-CTRI is a nationally recognized research center founded in 1992 and committed to determining the nature of tobacco dependence and developing evidence-based treatments to assist smokers. UW-CTRI is part of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. For more information, visit www.ctri.wisc.edu.