Framing tobacco dependence as a "brain disease": Implications for policy and practice

Kylie Morphett, Adrian Carter, Wayne Hall, Coral Gartner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Like other forms of drug dependence, tobacco dependence is increasingly being described as a “chronic brain disease.” The potential consequences of this medical labelling have been examined in relation to other addictions, but the implications for tobacco control have been neglected. Some have posited that biomedical conceptions of addiction will reduce stigma and increase uptake of efficacious treatments. Others have countered that it could increase stigma, reduce treatment seeking, and deter unassisted quitting. We explored how smokers respond to the labelling of smoking as a brain disease.
Semi-structured interviews with 29 Australian smokers recruited using purposive sampling. Thematic analysis was used to analyze the results.
Most participants questioned the accuracy of the brain disease label as applied to smoking. They believed that smoking was not a chronic disease because they perceived smoking to be an individual’s choice. In addition, many believed that this label would increase the stigma that they already felt and, did not want to adopt a “sick role” in relation to their smoking.
Describing smoking as a brain disease is more likely to alienate smokers than to engage them in quitting. The application of overly medical labels of smoking are inconsistent with smokers own conceptualizations of their smoking, and may have unintended consequences if they are widely disseminated in healthcare settings or antismoking campaigns.
The participants in this project believed that biomedical labels of smoking as a “brain disease” or a “chronic disease” were discordant their existing understandings of their smoking. Explanations of addiction that downplay or ignore the role of choice and autonomy risk being perceived as irrelevant by smokers, and could lead to suspicion of health professionals or an unwillingness to seek treatment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)774-780
Number of pages7
JournalNicotine and Tobacco Research
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2017

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