The hardening hypothesis: is the ability to quit decreasing due to increasing nicotine dependence? A review and commentary

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2011 Sep 1;117(2-3):111-7. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2011.02.009. Epub 2011 Mar 15.


The "hardening hypothesis" states tobacco control activities have mostly influenced those smokers who found it easier to quit and, thus, remaining smokers are those who are less likely to stop smoking. This paper first describes a conceptual model for hardening. Then the paper describes important methodological distinctions (quit attempts vs. ability to remain abstinent as indicators, measures of hardening per se vs. measures of causes of hardening, and dependence measures that do vs. do not include cigarettes per day (cigs/day).) After this commentary, the paper reviews data from prior reviews and new searches for studies on one type of hardening: the decreasing ability to quit due to increasing nicotine dependence. Overall, all four studies of the general population of smokers found no evidence of decreased ability to quit; however, both secondary analyses of treatment-seeking smokers found quit rates were decreasing over time. Cigs/day and time-to-first cigarette measures of dependence did not increase over time; however, two studies found that DSM-defined dependence appeared to be increasing over time. Although these data suggest hardening may be occurring in treatment seekers but not in the general population of smokers, this conclusion may be premature given the small number of data sets and indirect measures of quit success and dependence in the data sets. Future studies should include questions about quit attempts, ability to abstain, treatment use, and multi-item dependence measures.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Nicotiana*
  • Smoking / epidemiology*
  • Smoking Cessation / psychology
  • Smoking Cessation / statistics & numerical data*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / epidemiology
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / metabolism*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / psychology
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / rehabilitation*