Tobacco Industry Research on Smoking Cessation

Recapturing Young Adults and Other Recent Quitters


  • Received from the Department of Medicine, Divisions of General Internal Medicine (PML) and Cardiology (SAG), and Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, Institute for Health Policy Studies, Cardiovascular Research Institute, University of California, San Francisco, Calif.

Address correspondence and requests for reprints to Dr. Ling: Box 0320, 400 Parnassus Avenue, 4th floor, University of California, San Francisco, CA 94143-0320 (e-mail:


BACKGROUND:  Smoking rates are declining in the United States, except for young adults (age 18 to 24). Few organized programs target smoking cessation specifically for young adults, except programs for pregnant women. In contrast, the tobacco industry has invested much time and money studying young adult smoking patterns. Some of these data are now available in documents released through litigation.

OBJECTIVE:  Review tobacco industry marketing research on smoking cessation to guide new interventions and improve clinical practice, particularly to address young adult smokers’ needs.

METHODS:  Analysis of previously secret tobacco industry documents.

RESULTS:  Compared to their share of the smoking population, young adult smokers have the highest spontaneous quitting rates. About 10% to 30% of smokers want to quit; light smokers and brand switchers are more likely to try. Tobacco companies attempted to deter quitting by developing products that appeared to be less addictive or more socially acceptable. Contrary to consumer expectations, “ultra low tar” cigarette smokers were actually less likely to quit.

CONCLUSIONS:  Tobacco industry views of young adult quitting behavior contrast with clinical practice. Tobacco marketers concentrate on recapturing young quitters, while organized smoking cessation programs are primarily used by older smokers. As young people have both the greatest propensity to quit and the greatest potential benefits from smoking cessation, targeted programs for young adults are needed. Tobacco marketing data suggest that aspirational messages that decrease the social acceptability of smoking and support smoke-free environments resonate best with young adult smokers’ motivations.