Why is it Hard to Quit Smoking?


Basically all you need to do to quit smoking cigarettes is to never light up another cigarette. Simple right? So why is is it so hard to quit smoking?

If you have never been a smoker, you might accept that statement at face value.

You are likely to assume that cigarette smokers could easily stop if they just exerted a little will power.

I have had similar conversations with many of my friends and acquaintances in the past.

People who cared about me but had never smoked themselves, who just did not get it.

Physical Addiction

Yes, the nicotine in cigarettes is addictive.

Even the tobacco companies will openly state that one of the ingredients in their product is addictive, it is one of the reasons that they have been able to market their product to so many people for so many years!

Physical Habit

And what I mean by that is a habit that you have diligently reinforced between 100 – 400 times a day for all of the days, weeks, months and years that you have smoked.

Other than breathing, there is nothing else that you do this frequently.

Attempts to Quit Smoking Cigarettes and Cognitive Dissonance

Hard to quit smoking - it is all in your mind.In 1957 Leon Festinger proposed cognitive dissonance theory. This theory states that we all have a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency, which can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behaviour.

According to this theory when we have one belief that smoking is somehow good for us, for example it relieves stress, and another belief that smoking is bad for us, we experience feelings of discomfort.

This discomfort will prompt us to alter or minimise the importance of one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance. What seems to be maladaptive behaviour to a non-smoking observer, is often rationalised or justified by a smoker.

Yes it is bad for me but…

If we smoke, the awful pictures and the health warnings on the cigarette packs are unlikely to change our beliefs about what we get from smoking as we will rationalise the new information i.e. “smoking causes mouth cancer” into something that does not conflict with our beliefs like “smoking causes mouth cancer is some people but it is unlikely to happen to me”.

Or “I’ve got to die of something – at least this way I have a choice.”

And if we believe that quitting is hard? Which we do, do we not?

Then it will be hard.

Our conscious mind will find reasons to support our existing belief that quitting is hard, and our non-conscious mind will work really hard to make sure that our conscious mind is proven right.


Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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