A Smokers’ Dilemma

Posted on by Natalie Schultz

One in two Americans takes vitamin supplements, with the majority of people believing that the use of such supplements are beneficial to their health and well-being. This belief, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth when it comes to cigarette smokers. A new study has found that vitamin consumption may actually have adverse health effects, if people believe that the use of vitamins supplements allows them to engage in other unhealthy behaviors such as smoking. This phenomenon, described by psychologists as the “licensing effect,” is when people “reward” themselves with a poor choice after making a positive choice, for instance, like eating a cupcake after a long, hard workout. This study found that people smoked more cigarettes when they believed they were taking a multivitamin, and also felt less vulnerable to smoking related illnesses, despite a lack of evidence that multivitamins protect against cancer.

This study, published August 1, 2011 in the journal Addiction1, consisted of two experiments that examined smokers’ perceptions of the health benefits of vitamins. The first experiment tested if perceived vitamin use would “license” increased cigarette consumption. In this experiment, ostensibly run as an unrelated health food test, 74 daily smokers were given a placebo, but half of them were told they were taking a vitamin C supplement. After the study period, the participants were allowed to smoke while they completed a survey. They found that the participants who thought they were taking vitamin C pills smoked nearly twice as much as those who knew they were taking a placebo, and also reported greater feelings of invulnerability.

The second study expanded on the first, specifically testing whether this licensing effect was stronger on smokers with more positive attitudes towards vitamins. Prior to this study, participants were asked to rate their attitudes towards vitamins. Similar to the first experiment, half of the 80 participants were told they were taking a multivitamin, and half were told they were given a placebo. Once again, the smokers who thought they were taking a multivitamin smoked more than their placebo-taking counterparts. Interestingly, the smokers who reported more positive attitudes towards vitamins did, in fact, smoke more than the smokers who were less enthusiastic about vitamins. Overall, taking vitamins produced a greater sense of invulnerability in smokers, enabling them to smoke more cigarettes, with this effect more pronounced in smokers who more strongly believed in the health benefits of vitamins.

Health-conscious smokers who take vitamin supplements may consciously or subconsciously overestimate their healthfulness, leading them to smoke more cigarettes, and actually decrease their overall health. In other words, a smoker loses the ability to self-regulate unhealthy behaviors when they believe that their health can “afford” it, or they have earned it as a reward of some sort. It is no secret that smoking is common within the recovery community. Some even rationalize their nicotine addictions with the mantra, “progress, not perfection.” However, that phrase should not be an excuse to avoid or ignore the obvious health risks associated with smoking. Choosing sobriety is a monumental step in achieving a healthy body and mind, but recovering addicts should not be fooled into thinking that they have earned the right to smoke.


1Chiou W-B, Wan C-S, Wu W-H, and Lee K-T. A randomized experiment to examine unintended consequences of dietary supplement use among daily smokers: Taking supplements reduces self-regulation of smoking. Addiction, 106: doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2011.03545.x

This entry was posted in Science & News.

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