Discussion: Attempt to Quit, or Quit by Accident

It doesn’t take much to spark some errant thinking and lengthy discussions. In this instance it was the release of the final quarter statistics of 2015 from the Smoking Toolkit Study which is of course performed by Professor Robert West. This survey is used, along with other evidence, to inform those that need to know how many folks are smoking, whether or not they quit smoking and how they quit.

I have used the STS statistics in a lot of correspondence to my MP and as evidence when responding to consultations, simply because the information contained in the STS is detailed, and above all asks the right questions.

So what sparked these thoughts? Well it was this tweet from Dave Dorn:


Checking through the latest statistics, there is a definite downturn in e-cigarette usage in the last quarter of 2015, but there is an upturn in the usage of NRT. Can we directly attribute that to the media scare stories and the fact that almost all negative comments include “we recommend NRT”? Possibly we can but not definitively and, as the chart below shows, the use of e-cigarettes has risen dramatically since being included in the STS overtaking traditional NRT methods:

Source - http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/
Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/

The last quarter of 2014, and the last quarter of 2015 both show similar declines in e-cig usage, and in both cases there was a marked increase in the number of “scare stories” which may account for the decline in usage. This also coincides with the perception of harm of e-cigarettes, as noted by ASH there has been an increase in the number of people who believe e-cigarettes are harmful. Interestingly, the perception of e-cigarettes being less harmful by the user is also increasing, which would track with the general feeling within the community. However, it is clear that non-users (including smokers, ex-smokers and never-smokers) are becoming more fearful of “possible harms” of e-cigarettes with ~40% now believing they are less harmful than tobacco, with definite dips in perception around the times when the negative scare stories were most prevalent.

Source - http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/
Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/

Again, at both Q4 results (2014 & 2015) there is a distinct decline in non-users (i.e. current/ex/never smokers) believing that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes. In both cases there had been a seemingly coordinated attack on e-cigs and vaping with big, bold and scary headlines making ridiculous claims. Correlation, but not necessarily causation. The question on harm perception should really be expanded, perhaps graded on a 1-10 scale or similar instead of a yes/no answer as that doesn’t really allow for granularity in reporting. Does someone answering “yes” mean they think that e-cigarettes are “as harmful”, “slightly more harmful” or “substantially more harmful”? Considering the questionnaire only allows a “more harmful”, “equally harmful” or “less harmful” than cigarettes.

But the really interesting part of this is the quit attempts, this is what sparked the discussion between Dave, Sarah and myself on Twitter.

Source - http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/
Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/

After a steady decline in the use of “Over The Counter” (OTC) Nicotine Replacement Therapies, coupled with a significant rise in the use of e-cigarettes, the use of e-cigarettes as a quit method seems to have plateaued in the last quarter of 2015, more correlation to media stories perhaps?

But, this isn’t meant to be an analysis of the Smoking Toolkit Study information.

So what exactly is a quit attempt?

QuitDefinitionWell, the dictionary definition of “quit” is pretty clear – to be “rid of” – and in this case “to be rid of smoking”. So by that definition alone, a “quit attempt” is an attempt to be rid of smoking. Seems pretty clear-cut doesn’t it.

But there is some ambiguity out there, a lot of it in fact. From a public health perspective, a “quit attempt” could encompass stopping use of nicotine altogether – complete and total cessation. From the perspective of the general public a “quit attempt” could only mean the individual has stopped smoking (i.e. combustible tobacco), but not include nicotine use.

Is it worthwhile recording quit attempts at all? From a certain perspective, I would say yes it is worthwhile especially if you combine the attempt with the method used – that then gives indications of how “effective” a particular method actually is in the real world, a point that research cannot sufficiently demonstrate. Within the STS questionnaire document, a quit attempt is referred to as quitting smoking. But from there we delve into some murky waters indeed.

I am of course referring to the word “smoking”. A possibility raised by Dave, which I hadn’t fully considered myself is that some folks may view vaping AS smoking. We know that from several press releases over the last 12 months, vaping has been referred to as “smoking an e-cigarette” on several occasions, along with “e-smoke” and various other colloquialisms. We’ve also seen mention that “total abstinence is best”, which would of course include stopping the use of nicotine, either in the form of NRT or vaping.

So we’ve seen that e-cig usage has fallen (albeit slightly) in the final quarter of 2015, but what about the actually stopping smoking, and the smoking prevalence statistics?

Source - http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/
Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/

So the smoking prevalence has risen slightly. Taken in conjunction with a slightly lower e-cigarette usage, could this mean that the scare stories are having a negative impact on uptake? Compelling, but there isn’t truly enough information to come to that kind of conclusion, however it also ties in with the number of people who have stopped smoking:

Source - http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/
Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/

Does this suggest that the number of people attempting to quit is down? Not necessarily, but the next chart shows exactly that:

Source - http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/
Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/

So, e-cig prevalence is down, NRT use is going up but the percentage of those who tried to stop (and stop successfully) is also going down, along with a slight increase in overall smoking prevalence. Does this mean that the survey itself is asking the wrong questions, or are there other factors?

From the discussion on Twitter it would seem it’s not a particular issue with the questionnaire as such, more a case of terminology. Some of the public do still refer to themselves as “smokers” even though they have actually quit tobacco use and are vaping instead. So interchanging “smoke”, “smoker”, & “smoking” in the survey question with “use tobacco cigarettes” and “use electronic cigarettes” instead of (or maybe in conjunction with) smoke, smoker & smoking would help to alleviate some of the confusion surrounding terminology.

H/T Dave Dorn

This may provide some more clarity into the murky waters of “dual-use” and/or transition periods for when new users are in the process of switching and have yet to settle on one product or the other. It could also provide some valuable information of time-frames for dual-use. Is it essential? Probably not, but it could prove to be useful, especially when considering the following question from the questionnaire:

Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/downloadfile/?type=sts-documents&src=26 (P534)

Which would seem to cover “accidental” quitters, such as those that try an e-cigarette without really wanting to quit smoking, but end up doing just that. Actually quitting smoking without making an “attempt”, as clarified by Professor West the Smoking Toolkit Study does find some like that, but very few:


Purely out of curiosity, I’d like to see some comments on this one; which of the answers listed in the question above applies to you (if you’ve stopped smoking that is), or are you a mix of them?

For the sake of completeness, I’m going to quickly run through some of the October 2015 Wave (109) of the STS Questionnaire:

First up, you get asked which of the following best applies with a note stating that cigarettes refer to tobacco and not e-cigarettes so a clear definition there. Remember, e-cigarettes were first included in the STS back in 2011, no doubt initial questions back then were adapted from tobacco use (just as the CDC surveys are) but have been amended and fine tuned as the level of knowledge on e-cigarettes has increased; in stark contrast to the questions still being asked by the CDC.

The questionnaire does ask if the individual is trying to cut down the amount they smoke (again, a definition that may be open to interpretation by the participant) and follows that with “which of the following are you currently using to help you cut back”, which includes NRT (gum, lozenges, inhaler, nasal spray, patches, and mouthspray (QuickMist) ) along with e-cigarettes and a generic “Other”. The following graph shows the collated responses:

Source - http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/
Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/

If you answered that you stopped smoking in the last 12 months, you get asked how long it was since you last smoked. Assuming of course that the interviewee isn’t mistaking “smoking an e-cig” for “smoking a cigarette” this is reasonably straightforward. There are some additional follow-up questions reliant on the answers to the first two.

The thing is, so much relies on the interviewee responding to the terminology being used by the interviewer, whether this means that the interviewer must be 110% clear in the definitions of “smoking” (as in tobacco), “quit” (as in stopping tobacco & nicotine use) or amending the question to be more common parlance.


As we’ve seen, there are many interpretations of the phrases we, as vapers use; often we use “quit” to refer to the fact that we have stopped tobacco use, but in some cases “quit” (when viewed from a public health perspective) can also mean stopping the use of nicotine. Also remember, most of the vaping advocates can’t really be defined as representative of vapers as a whole as we do see a lot more of the science and politics than the average joes in the street, plus it also depends on what information we’re looking for.

Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/sts-documents/

So leading with a question such as “do you currently smoke” may need to be phrased carefully, or re-worded to be focussed in one particular direction – such as “do you currently smoke tobacco cigarettes” – especially when, and it depends on locality, some members of the public still see vaping as smoking.

I think the key question being answered in the STS to date is the comparison of e-cigarettes against NRT and other aids to cessation or smoking reduction. As can clearly be seen in the charts, e-cigarettes have rapidly overtaken more “traditional” methods of smoking cessation/reduction, and as a result the smoking prevalence rate has fallen. This is essential real world data, this on its own provides data that cannot be gathered from a Randomised Control Trial, often referred to as the “gold standard” for clinical trials. Sadly, this data is often dismissed as “anecdotal” when e-cigarette users claim that the devices helped them quit. There are of course many options to aid smoking cessation, some of those options are aimed at complete cessation of both tobacco and nicotine use. Is this the “quit attempt” terminology at work? It would certainly appear so, many surveys worldwide refer to the term “quit attempt” but don’t really make any distinction between how or more pointedly, has the individual “quit smoking” or reached “total abstinence”?

The other questions being answered are the effect e-cigarettes (either directly or indirectly), and use of other aids to cessation or smoking reduction are having on the overall smoking prevalence rate. The second of two key points. We’ve already seen in the US data from the CDC MTF survey State by State, that wherever e-cigarette prevalence is growing overall tobacco use is falling. We are also seeing the reverse in States that have implemented bans and/or taxation on vapour products. Of course this does not mean that a rise in e-cigarette prevalence is the cause of tobacco use falling, but it is certainly a compelling statistic.

Interestingly, the Smoking Toolkit Study looks at the effect that e-cigarettes might have on those that have previously smoked, and successfully stopped for more than a year as well as those who have never smoked. These two groups, the never smokers and non-vaping ex-smokers are tracked for e-cigarette and general nicotine uptake. While it is true that those who have never smoked shouldn’t really start vaping, the rate of uptake in that group is, and remains negligible, similar to that of never smokers using NRT.

However, one group, the ex-smokers, has risen up until Q3 2015, but showed a marked decline in the results from Q4, while ex-smokers using NRT remains reasonably consistent. The question here for the “long-term ex-smoker” group, which is a question that doesn’t seem to be covered, is whether the uptake of e-cigarettes for this group is a relapse to a smoking-like behaviour? Why are long-term ex-smokers taking up e-cigarettes or nicotine in general?

This leads me on the next, and possibly the final point of this post. Post 12 month relapse back to smoking after a “successful quit”. The initial question does give an opportunity to follow-up on this seeming unexplored arena:

Source – http://www.smokinginengland.info/downloadfile/?type=sts-documents&src=26

The only follow-up question (that I can spot in the questionnaire document) is in relation to the age when the respondent stopped smoking. Whether this then leads on to the respondent being asked questions aimed at current cigarette smokers and recent ex-smokers is unfortunately not clear. Do the authors of the STS need information such as reasons for relapse (long-term ex-smoker)? It is also currently unclear, as is the potential impact on the overall prevalence rates. Is the fact that smoking prevalence seems to have plateaued at ~18% due to long-term ex-smokers restarting the habit?

We’ve already seen that less than 1% of long-term ex-smokers have taken to e-cigarettes, but are these long-term ex-smokers taking up e-cigarettes to avoid relapsing to smoking only to initiate subsequent quit attempts? This seems to be an unexplored area, and from the conversation on Twitter and Professor Wests’ comments at the E-Cigarette Summit there are some planned changes to the questions asked. Now would be a good time for an open dialogue to help answer some key questions on relapse, dual use and harm perceptions.

The Smoking Toolkit Study is by far the most comprehensive and granular of its kind, especially given that it now includes a wide array of alternatives such as e-cigarettes alongside other cessation aids, such as leaflets and books, and it does cover many of the questions policy makers are asking – gateways, do they help folk to stop smoking, are non-smokers picking them up, how often are e-cigarettes being used (instead of the generic “past 30 days” answer in US surveys) and so on – however, there are some gaps (from a vapers point of view) that could be included which may prove beneficial: (these are of course the opinions, thoughts and comments that originated from the Twitter discussion)

  • e-cigarette nicotine levels – are they being reduced over time?

The reference to nicotine levels/strengths is especially important for the never-smoker and possible the long-term ex-smoker groups, but should be asked of all groups. Are never-smokers who use e-cigarettes actually using nicotine? Are long-term ex-smokers? Are recent ex-smokers who are using an e-cigarette as a cessation method reducing their nicotine level? Do they plan to stop using the e-cigarette? It may be that users of e-cigarettes that reduce their nicotine content are perhaps looking to stop entirely, this isn’t always the case as the varying styles of vaping (lung-hit or mouth to lung) do tend to show differences in nicotine levels anyway (ever tried lunging 18mg+? – wouldn’t recommend that personally!). The nicotine levels may prove interesting information, but is it data that needs to be tracked?

  • Does the study need to look at reasons why never-smokers, and long-term ex-smokers are vaping?

Specifically are ex-smokers using e-cigarettes to avoid a relapse back to smoking? Are ex-smokers relapsing? What product(s) did they use on their previous quit attempt?

  • Does the study need to expand questions specifically related to e-cigarettes?

Specifically in relation to the “how soon after you wake up do/did you light up” type question. Are the vaping and tobacco habits the same or are they different? The answer to that could prove very interesting indeed, after all the “addictiveness test” uses this type of question, it is more behavioural than cessation related but it could open the way for more details in why e-cigarettes work for so many.

  • Seeing that Stop Smoking Services are going e-cig friendly, does this need to be included?

We know that Stop Smoking Services are e-cig friendly and offer advice on the use of the devices, but I didn’t see any reference to SSS/E-Cig advice mentioned in the questionnaire. The services themselves do keep track of the product(s) used in quit attempts (successful or not), so it may not be pertinent for the STS. It is also plausible that the information held by the services are not necessarily participants in the STS, and SSS records may not always show where the initiative to use an e-cig came from the advisor or the user. According to the HSCIC data on NHS Stop Smoking Services successful quit attempts using an “unlicensed nicotine containing product” doesn’t show the same trends as the STS information, maybe there is scope to include (or reference) HSCIC data in STS or vice-versa?

  • Does there need to be additional granularity in the definitions or responses to the “quit attempts” – i.e. do the results of relapse need to be reported ?

With former smokers reporting they are using either NRT or e-cigarettes, does this indicate that they have relapsed? Does the use of an e-cigarette under these circumstances need further investigation along the lines of “why”? This could open a can of worms in relation to possible “re-normalisation” discussions as some former smokers may just “miss the sensation” of smoking or are they taking to vaping because they don’t want to go back to smoking.

These are but a few of the points and thoughts I had as a result of the discussion on Twitter, and looking back through the questionnaire documents available the STS has evolved as the smoking and smoking cessation landscapes changed, but there is scope for additional parameters to be monitored. I for one would absolutely love to sit down with Professor West and talk to him directly about the questionnaire, maybe take the survey as a “dummy” participant while bringing some of these points up at the same time, it would certainly prove an interesting conversation!

I’d also like to hear your thoughts in the comments, what other questions are needed (or you would like to see asked). What other information do you feel would be useful to Professor West in this survey?

As a final note, I would like to extend heartfelt thanks to Professor Robert West for allowing me to use the information contained within the Smoking Toolkit Study, along with his efforts on behalf of all vapers.

  • dodderer1

    Just some thoughts on the latest figures(They may or may not address your points!)

    The fall in quit attempts from 37.3% to 32.5% represents about 400k fewer attempts.The change in prevalence from a fall of 0.7% to an increase of 0.2% also comes out at ~400k (0.9% x 45m).It seems unlikely,all other things being equal,that all the ‘lost’ attempts would have been successful.

    The number of ecig attempts appears to have remained unchanged – a higher %age of a smaller total.Given the SSS total is unlikely to have fallen by more than 50k,the vast majority of the’lost’ attempts seem to be from the no aid/OTC NRT category – which is the least effective and so should have only a small impact on prevalence.

    I also fed these 2015 numbers into the Smoking Pipe model which gave a predicted fall in prevalence of 0.6% – again an indication that something odd has happened.

    It may be that the scare stories have caused exceptional relapse not only amongst ecig quitters in the previous 12 months but also those who had quit for more than 12 months.

    I can’t end without putting forward another possibility( at the risk of sending Sarah apoplectic!).Whilst our sole focus is ecigs and TPD Art 20,the big issue for TC,both nationally and globally, is PP/SP.They have so much invested in its success and what this will mean for the rest of the world that it will be made to succeed,by fair means or foul.

    So the 12 months after implementation will definitely show a big fall in prevalence – what better way to achieve a big fall than to have rising prevalence beforehand?It might also scare the Dept of Health as they draft the next TC plan into providing more money (and legislation!)

    • Wouldn’t necessarily call them “lost” attempts, merely attempts not made, hence a correlation (not causation 😉 ) to the slight increase in smoking prevalence (in my interpretation).

      Are the media solely to blame? Probably not in my opinion, there are far too many factors to solely point to that as the only cause.

      The question I’d like to see answered is why long-term ex-smokers are returning to nicotine use at all, but I suspect this will be outside of the STS remit.

      • dodderer1

        I think the link between attempts and prevalence is slightly more than correlation – contribution as RW defined the relationship between increased ecig use and falling prevalence!

        It is odd that numbers of ecig using long-term ex-smokers has gone from 464k in Q2 to 622k in Q3 to 369k in Q4(based on 10,550k total >1 year ex-smokers).How much is margin of error and how much is real change is difficult to assess with relatively small quarterly sample sizes.

        You will have the vapers who successfully quit 12 months ago + any fully abstinent ex-smokers starting vaping – those who have relapsed.For the full-abstinence quits,approx. one third of those still abstinent at 1 year subsequently relapse but I think vapers will be different – once you’ve found an acceptable combination, the attraction of relapse has gone.

  • dodderer1

    I should also request another piece of information from the STS.We know how many attempted to quit in the previous 12 months,we know what aid they used and we know the total number who were still quit at the time of the survey.Publishing those who were still quit by aid would be invaluable.

    • Agreed – the STS is a valuable tool, why not expand it – assuming of course those who were still quit at time of survey were willing to be included 🙂

      • dodderer1

        My point was that this information already exists – it’s just not disclosed.Every surveyed person will be asked:
        Do you smoke or have you smoked in the last 12 months?
        Have you made a QA in last 12 months?
        What aid did you use?
        Do you smoke now?

        From this info,it is as easy to report success by aid as it is to report QAs by aid?

  • Greg A. Hamacher

    My name is Greg Hamacher and I was told about Vapor cigarettes by a friend at work. He had cancer of the throat once and has had surgery for this and was told he had to quit smoking or he may have a relapse and require more surgery or even die. He tried all health related products patches, gum, mists…etc to quit smoking to no avail, he just couldn’t stay away from the cigarettes and he was scared. He was told about Vapor Jedi one of the stores in Saskatoon and started to vape as it seems to be known as now and has not smoked in over a year. He feels better with no coughing in mornings or during the day, he is also using the lower nicotine levels now hoping at sometime to get off the nicotine altogether.
    I myself decided to try vaping and bought a starters kit to see
    if it would help me to cut down. I was smoking over a pack of 25 cigarettes a
    day at a cost every month of over $500.00 due to tax increases on tobacco
    products and I to have tried the conventional nicotine help aids out there and
    also to no avail. Well I started to vape a month ago and have not had a
    cigarette since without any withdrawl dragging me back. I too feel and breath
    better already and when I check my ecigarette’s tip there is no tar or residue
    Now we have Health Canada saying that it is not good for you but it
    has not been tested they say, so how can they know that it is not good for you without testing? It seems to me that they are quick to warn against without the facts, but will not tell people it is better than smoking cigarettes that are full of tars and resins and other chemicals.But I also know they are not receiving any tax dollars for the liquid that goes into a vapor cigarette accept for sales tax. If you check there are no controlled substances in the vapor liquid and the nicotine levels are below regulated amounts but it does work for a person wanting to give up smoking. I did not even want to quit, I like smoking, but I have not smoked a cigarette in over a month, cold turkey and no cravings that draw me back.
    I truly think it is healthier and the controversy is not about how healthy it is (But more about the taxes, the money). Even the
    traditional help aids sold in pharmacies are very costly over a month, yet with
    vapor I spent a one time cost of $100.00 for a ecigarette and now my products to use that cigarette cost about $50.00 a month. Yes the government and cigarette companies are going to say it is not good for you, but they have no real grounds for their findings, they are loosing money!

    Also if they band these I know I will go back to smoking.

    Greg Hamacher


    • Greg,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story here! I really do wish that Canada would see some sense with regards to vapour products, I really do.

      As a good friend of mine is want to say:
      Vape on! Vape hard! and don’t let the bastards grind you down!

      • Greg A. Hamacher

        Oh by the way that story is old and it has been just over a year now since I started to vape and I am still cigarette free and my nicotine level has gone from 18mg to 3mg. I breath better, have more energy and truly know vaping is a far healthier choice, I just pray it stays our choice and is not stolen from us by over regulation by our governments due to loss of tax dollars, people are more important than money!

        • If I, or any other non-Canadian can help in your fight against ridiculous regs let us know!

          • Greg A. Hamacher

            Thank you Paul, if you can win the battle where you are it will help us all! I believe this is a global fight we are in against Big Tobacco taking control of this industry and they will fight it country by country till they control the global market just like they do tobacco now and our governments are more than willing to give it to Big Tobacco since they have done a wonderful job for decades with tobacco! Our governments will over regulate the vaping industry till the small companies will not be able to afford to meet regulation standards that will be set (such as medical regulation standards) and Pharma and Big Tobacco will pick up the ball and all 3 will make their money Pharma, BT and governments around the globe. The only chance we really have is to get the public informed and asking why when minimal regulation is all that is required. The worst of it is that they get away with it when no harm has been proven from vaping or vapor. They say we are free, but are we?

  • Lets see… the right question does have to be asked.

    In my first survey I had complaints about how I worded the question.
    42% quit in a day. I was shocked. (photo on left)

    On the second survey, worded differently, and of course more complaints… critics everywhere…. 🙂
    BUT… the second was 50% within a day.

    Outstanding blog as ALWAYS, Paul. Let me know what else you want – anytime! 🙂