Importance: Broad adoption of lung cancer screening may inadvertently lead to negative population health outcomes if it is perceived as a substitute for smoking cessation.
Objective: To understand views on smoking cessation from current smokers in the context of being offered lung cancer screening as a routine service in primary care.
Design, setting, and participants: As an ancillary study to the launch of a lung cancer screening program at 7 sites in the Veterans Health Administration, 45 in-depth semi-structured qualitative interviews about health beliefs related to smoking and lung cancer screening were administered from May 29 to September 22, 2014, by telephone to 37 current smokers offered lung cancer screening by their primary care physician. Analysis was conducted from June 15, 2014, to March 29, 2015.
Main outcomes and measures: Attitudes and perceptions about the importance of smoking cessation in the context of lung cancer screening.
Results: Lung cancer screening prompted most current smokers to reflect for the first time on what smoking means for their current and future health. However, 17 of 35 (49%) participants described mechanisms whereby screening lowered their motivation for cessation, including the perception that undergoing an imaging test yields the same health benefits as smoking cessation. Other misperceptions include the belief that everyone who participates in screening will benefit; the belief that screening and being able to return for additional screening offers protection from lung cancer; the perception by some individuals that findings from screenings have saved their lives by catching their cancer early when indeterminate findings are identified that can be monitored rather than immediately treated; and a reinforced belief in some individuals that a cancer-free screening test result indicates that they are among the lucky ones who will avoid the harms of smoking.
Conclusions and relevance: In this qualitative, lung cancer screening prompted many current smokers to reflect on their health and may serve as a potential opportunity to engage patients in discussions about smoking cessation. However, several concerning pathways were identified in which screening, when offered as part of routine care and described as having proven efficacy, may negatively influence smoking cessation. Health care professionals should be aware that the opportunity for early detection of lung cancer may be interpreted as a way of avoiding the harms of smoking. To promote cessation, discussions should focus on the emotional response to screening rather than clinical details (eg, nodule size) and address misperceptions about the value of early detection so that screening does not lower motivation to quit smoking.