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Quit Smoking: Understanding E-Cigarettes and "Urge Surfing"

Aliaksei Skreidzeleu, 123rf stock photo

Kentucky has one of the highest smoking rates in the country with about 30% of the population using tobacco products in some form. Quitting smoking is becoming ever more relevant to the faculty and staff at Murray State University, now with a new smoking ban going into effect in the next school year. Kate Lochte and Dr. Michael Bordieri of the Murray State University Department of Psychology continue a discussion about quitting tobacco addiction by discussing the pros and cons of using e-cigarettes as an alternative and learning how to "urge surf."

Quitting smoking is possible, but it's difficult to do so, says Dr. Michael Bordieri. As smoking cigarettes continues it's decline, we've seen the rise of e-cigarettes and vaping as smoking alternatives. Whether this is a "healthier" alternative begs for more scientific study. It's a product that was developed and put on the market in a relatively short amount of time, so there are a lot of unanswered questions about the safety of the device and what role it might play in helping individuals who are smokers quit, he says.

Concerns are starting to emerge regarding their safety, whether certain chemicals may or may not be present, but mainly this is a product that lacks oversight from the FDA in terms of standardizing or assessing what are in the devices or and how chemicals - if there are any - are being delivered to the body. Short answer: more research is needed. It's hard to imagine that they'll be more dangerous than smoking, Dr. Bordieri says, not to suggest they are safe, but rather smoking is just that dangerous. The core of what is dangerous in smoking is the combustion of tobacco. The fact that e-cigarettes deliver nicotine via a different mechanism - vaporizing them into an aerosol - may mean there are less health risks. That being said, the actual state of health risks is largely unknown.

When burning the tobacco itself, it's not just nicotine, but many other chemicals that are released in the process, many of which can lead to all kinds of health problems. Dr. Bordieri says the most severe side effects from the combustion process, but nicotine itself isn't a great substance to have in the body.

E-cigarettes are talked about in literature as a "harm reduction" strategy for people seeking to quit smoking. Dr. Bordieri says, "I'm quite hesitant and I think the scientific community is hesitant to say that they're safe. I think we would need much more evidence and research to suggest that. But at the very least, it seems they are less dangerous than smoking or the combustion of tobacco itself."

At this point, it's an open question as to how it stacks up against patches and gum. Early results from research are mixed. Patches and gum have a broad range of support for their relative safety and relative effectiveness in helping people quit, but the data isn't quite there yet with e-cigarettes. There are certainly some individuals who have used it effectively to help quit, but there's not enough research yet.

Smoking isn't necessarily logical, but it's psychological, he says. The addiction is strong and the withdrawal symptoms are incredibly unpleasant. The feeling of relaxation and calming that smokers report has less to do with pleasant effects but more to do with removing those unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. One of the biggest keys to quitting smoking is the ability to experience withdrawal symptoms and not having to act on it immediately. Some researchers point out that cravings on average last round 15 minutes before they disappear.

Dr. Bordieri says he recommends to people quitting smoking to find a way to get through each 15 minute craving, one at a time. You don't need to stay smoke free forever, he says, but can you go the next 15 minutes without it? He recommends using that time to go for a walk, chew gum or engage in "urge surfing." Similar to mindfulness, this is the act of noticing the cravings and simply not acting on it as a way to get through it. The idea is that, much like the waves on the beaches in California, you let those cravings wash over you.


Assistant Professor of Psychology at Murray State, Dr. Michael Bordieri joins us every other Tuesday to talk about topics of interest in his field. These chats are informational-only and should not be construed as any form of psychotherapy, counseling, diagnosis or treatment. Any health condition, including depression, should be evaluated and treated by a qualified professional in the context of an established professional relationship.

The next discussion airs on March 10 with a check-in on the science of change and making positive changes in our lives.

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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