Can Bribes Help You Quit Smoking?
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Can Bribes Help You Quit Smoking?


This post was originally published on February 9, 2015.

Quitting smoking is a bitch. No matter how much Chantix you swallow, how much Nicorette you chew or how many patches you stick all over your biceps or belly, it’s still a bitch. The psychological addiction is so tough to break only 25% of smokers stay stopped even when they use medication, 12-step groups or other assistance.

But maybe offering a little moola can help.

If You Pay Them, They Will Quit

A study was just published in the British Medical Journal which rounded up 600 prego women in the UK to see if paying them would help them quit smoking.

Professor David Tappin from Glasgow University in Scotland led the experiment. Tappin and his colleagues separated the women into two groups; one received $1,200 in shopping vouchers while the control group got short-changed with just counseling and free nicotine therapy.

Approximately 25 percent of the pregnant woman who got the cash, in the form of a Love2Shop shopping voucher—we won’t talk about how sexist that is—quit. But only nine percent of the control group was successful.

“If financial incentives are effective and cost effective they may well have the future potential to sit with vaccines as an important preventive healthcare intervention strategy,” says Professor Tappin of his experiment.

The experts aren’t just limiting their research to smoking. They’re also examining how doling out money might inhibit other public health problems like obesity. Still, there are the devil’s advocates who insist such measures are unethical.

Income Inequality

According to statistics, low-income individuals rank highest on the smoking scale, which is why Tappin suspects financial incentives might be an effective means to persuade people to knock off the nicotine.

“In the developed world there is now a clear socioeconomic gradient in smoking, with tobacco use concentrated among the poorest in society,” he says. “Receipt of financial incentives can contribute to needed household income in advance of the arrival of a baby in low income households.”

Moralists Weigh In

Some folks say the vouchers are a form of bribery. Well, of course they are…technically. But the question remains as to whether bribery is a just means to fix a massive public health problem and save lives. Alfie Kohn, a behavior expert and author, thinks it’s a dangerous and ineffective proposition.

In an essay for the Christian Science Monitor, Kohn went on record saying that bribing low-income pregnant women was a myopic idea that would ultimate fail, adding that rewards of any kind don’t lead to any kind of lasting change.

“Research consistently finds that bribes, like threats, do not lead to lasting positive changes; at best they can only alter superficial behavior for a little while,” Kohn writes. “Not only do rewards fail to work over the long haul, to get adults to stop smoking or lose weight, for example, or to get kids to read more or act generously, but they often make things worse. Scores of studies have found that the more you reward people to do something, the less committed they become to whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

What’s the Harm?

If monetary bribes can help people kick the insidious addiction to cigarettes, which is not only deadly but greatly decreases one’s quality of life, is it really such a shabby idea? True, the success of the plan probably depends on the individual, how much they want to quit or how much they need the money. But if helping low-come expectant mothers or other impoverished men and women put food on the table and diapers on their kids and break them of a life-threatening addiction, who cares what the moralists say?

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.