As health officials search for novels ways to help cigarette smokers kick the habit, they may want to consider enlisting the power of smell.
Researchers found that smokers exposed to pleasant olfactory cues, like the scents of chocolate, lemon, or vanilla, had less intense cigarette cravings than those exposed to a neutral smell or the smell of tobacco. The very preliminary research suggests a possible role for olfactory stimulation in smoking cessation, said Michael Sayette, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
Sayette told MedPage Today that while it is not yet clear if sniffing pleasant smells can help curb nicotine cravings for a long enough period to be a useful tool in smoking cessation, the study findings suggest the idea is worth pursuing.
“We know that worldwide about a billion people still smoke,” he said. “If it were to turn out that even a modest proportion of smokers would benefit from an olfactory cue, that would be a very large number of people who could be helped.”
Most adults smokers say they want to quit, and roughly half of current smokers make a quit attempt each year. Yet, only about one in 10 cigarette smokers give up smoking for good annually, according to the CDC, and 40 million Americans still smoke.
“Even with nicotine replacement, relapse is common,” Sayette said. “New interventions are urgently needed to help the millions who wish to quit but are unable.”
He noted that research has emerged examining the impact of olfactory triggers in such areas as cognition, emotion, and behavior.
Early studies suggest that olfactory cues may impact memory, pain tolerance, anxiety, and even cardiovascular markers of health.
In an earlier proof-of-concept study, the researchers showed that exposure to smells that individual participants found to be most pleasurable resulted in an immediate decrease in the urge to smoke, but it was not clear if this effect lasted more than a few seconds, Sayette said.
In the current study, the impact of olfactory cues was measured for 5 minutes to determine if smelling pleasant smells continued to decrease cigarette cravings.
The study included 232 adult smokers (107 women; 125 men) who were not trying to quit at recruitment, and were not using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).
The smokers were asked to abstain from cigarette use for 8 hours prior to arriving at the study site, and they were also asked to bring a pack of their preferred cigarette brand and a lighter with them.
The participants were first asked to smell and rate 12 different odors considered by most people to be pleasant (lemon, peppermint, chocolate) or unpleasant (mushroom). The participants were also exposed to two “tobacco” olfactory cues and odors considered to be neutral or blank.
In the next part of the experiment, the participants were asked to light a cigarette and hold it in their hands, but not smoke it. After 10 seconds they verbally rated their urge to smoke on a scale of 1 to 100 before extinguishing the cigarette.
The participants then opened a container that held either the scent they had rated most pleasurable, the scent of tobacco, or no scent, and sniffed it once before again rating their urge to smoke.
They continued to sniff the provided container for the next 5 minutes, rating their urge to smoke every 60 seconds.
The average craving score after lighting the cigarette was 82.13. Regardless of the olfactory cue given, all participants experienced decreases in the urge to smoke after sniffing the provided container.
But average craving scores decreased significantly more among those who smelled their chosen pleasant odor (19.3 points) than among those who smelled tobacco (11.7 points) or received containers with the blank smell (11.2 points).
Sayette said while curbing tobacco cravings for 5 minutes may not seem like a long time, it could be long enough to banish thoughts of smoking a cigarette.
“We know that cravings are like waves, and eventually they will subside if you don’t satisfy them,” he said. “That 5-minute boost might be enough to help a smoker make a different decision.”
He added that he hopes to expand the research to include brain imaging, in an effort to better understand the mechanism behind how exposure to pleasant odors may reduce cigarette cravings.
“We are also interested in taking this outside the laboratory, to see if we can have an impact on smoking cravings outside the lab,” he said.
The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute. International Flavors & Fragrance provided some of the olfactory cues for the study.
Sayette and co-authors disclosed no relevant relationships with industry.