Behavioral Economics of Cigarette Purchase Tasks: Within-Subject Comparison of Real, Potentially Real, and Hypothetical Cigarettes

Nicotine Tob Res. 2016 May;18(5):524-30. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntv154. Epub 2015 Jul 17.


Introduction: Hypothetical rewards are commonly used in studies of laboratory-based tobacco demand. However, behavioral economic demand procedures require confirmation that the behavior elicited from real and hypothetical reward types are equivalent, and that results attained from these procedures are comparable to other accepted tasks, such as the hypothetical purchase task.

Methods: Nineteen smokers were asked to purchase 1 week's worth of cigarettes that they would consume over the following week either at one price that incrementally increased across four weekly sessions ("real" sessions) or four prices in a single session ("potentially real" session), one of which was randomly chosen to be actualized. At each session, participants also completed a hypothetical cigarette purchase task. After each week, participants reported the number of cigarettes they actually smoked.

Results: Demand was found to be equivalent under both the real and potentially real reward conditions but statistically different from the demand captured in the hypothetical purchase task. However, the amounts purchased at specific prices in the hypothetical purchase task were significantly correlated with the amount purchased at comparable prices in the other two tasks (except for the highest price examined in both tasks of $1.00 per cigarette). Number of cigarettes consumed that were obtained outside of the study was correlated with study cigarette price.

Conclusions: Combined, these results suggest that purchasing behavior during potentially real sessions (1) was not functionally different from real sessions, (2) imposes fewer costs to the experimenter, and (3) has high levels of both internal and external validity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Economics, Behavioral*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Random Allocation
  • Smoking* / economics
  • Smoking* / psychology
  • Tobacco Products / economics*