The fidget factor – BBC



Smoking is very much a ritual, say researchers

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

With the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces in England looming, many puffers are looking to quit. But is the ritual of holding a cigarette as addictive as inhaling?

It rests there between your fingers, pale and smooth and glowing. You keep it balanced, anticipating your own next move – and only when the time is right, you raise it to your mouth.

Every smoker and ex-smoker knows the compulsion to maintain the habit is about more than a craving for nicotine. The cigarette offers a prop with which to fidget, a ritual in which to become distracted.

On 1 July, smoking in enclosed public places will be banned across the UK
Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales already have such a ban; England’s ban starts 1 July
The Magazine will count down the weeks with a series of articles about the impact of the ban on life in Britain

For the Spanish surrealist film director Luis Bunuel, the pleasure of smoking lay in being able “to touch the pack in my pocket, open it, savour the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the paper on my lips” – not in feeling his lungs fill up with fumes.

And then there is the setting. It might require a barstool and a pint glass, or a gossip magazine and a rich tea biscuit. Maybe it takes place just before the working day begins, or when the children have finally been put to bed.

An estimated 600,000 people in England are preparing to kick the addiction before it is banned in enclosed public spaces on 1 July, according to the Department of Health. .

But experts say they will have to contend with more than one set of withdrawal symptoms.

‘Time off’

Ann McNeil, professor in health policy and promotion at the University of Nottingham, says the routine of smoking usually becomes inseparable from the cravings.

“It’s very much a ritual – sitting down, lighting the cigarette, putting it to your lips,” she says. “It turns into habitual behaviour that you get used to carrying out.

“Also, doing something with your hands in situations where you are anxious can play a role.

Man smoking

Smokers ‘crave cigarettes more in a pub’

“But the problem is that it becomes very difficult to disentangle that ritual from the dependence on nicotine. And that makes it harder to quit.”

Studies have also indicated that smokers display higher levels of anxiety than non-smokers, adds Prof McNeill. This suggests turning to cigarettes to relieve tension and stress actually makes matters worse.

This is, of course, not to mention the tension and stress caused by smoking-related illnesses like cancer and heart disease.

But Lion Shahab, a research psychologist at University College London’s Health Behaviour Unit who specialises in tobacco use, acknowledges that addiction is bound up by context.

“It’s a bit like Pavlov’s dog – you associate smoking with a particular environment,” he says.

‘Double whammy’

“Studies have shown that smokers crave cigarettes more in a pub setting than in an office setting, because that’s where they would expect smoking to take place.”

So how can would-be ex-smokers avoid being hit by a double whammy of withdrawal symptoms when they finally put aside their lighters?

When Spain’s own smoking ban came into force in January 2006, confectionary manufacturers Chupa Chups did their best to cash in.


The brand’s sales rose by 25% after it brought out a range of lollipops in cigarette carton-like packaging, offering quitters an alternative hand-to-mouth activity.

But this option may not prove appealing to smokers who are already concerned about putting on weight if they give up.

A healthier alternative is suggested by Brian Jones, a counsellor with the stop-smoking charity Quit.

He says the most important step for anyone hoping to kick their habit is to change his or her routine, so that every day does not become a series of reminders of what is missing.

“If you used to take a cigarette break, still try and have the same amount of time off – but do something different, or else you’ll resent the fact that you can’t smoke,” he suggests.

“Go for a walk instead of reading the paper with a cigarette. Or if you used to drink a coffee while you smoked, have a fruit juice instead.”

The loss of a key part of the daily routine might be a traumatic prospect for some. But with the government forcing their hands, they will never have a better opportunity to leave old habits behind.