Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and substantial efforts have documented and publicized the associated hazards. Despite widespread knowledge of the inherent dangers, though, over 20% of the population still smokes. This proposal is designed to understand one of the basic mechanisms that may underlie such profound apparent disregard for one's health: delay discounting. Delay discounting refers to the way that consequences lose value when they are not immediate. Things that will happen to us in the distant future have less power to motivate us than things that will happen right away. If a person is sensitive to only relatively short-term outcomes, it is considered a form of impulsivity. Cigarette smokers have been found to discount future monetary outcomes more so than non-smokers. Recent research indicates that the degree to which a person discounts future monetary outcomes is predictive of whether they will become a smoker, and how much difficulty they will have quitting once they are a smoker. Thus, delay discounting is an important individual vulnerability characteristic related to smoking. The purpose of this proposal is to provide a basic understanding of steep discounting of future consequences in cigarette smokers. For example, despite the clarity of findings on discounting of money by smokers and non-smokers, we do not yet know the extent and generality of steep discounting in cigarette smokers. It could be that they discount a variety of outcomes more so than non-smokers, or their steep discounting could be limited to cigarettes and money, which is used to purchase cigarettes. We also do not understand the role and mechanisms of nicotine withdrawal in generating insensitivity to delayed consequences. While some limited information suggests smokers may become more impulsive during withdrawal, we do not know the extent to which this is a general phenomenon and whether it is related to particular aspects of withdrawal, like disruptions in short-term memory and negative affect. Finally, cigarette smokers are particularly impulsive with respect to cigarettes, for reasons that are not understood. We propose to investigate some of the basic features of cigarettes that differ from money (direct consumption, single alternative available) to see if they produce steep discounting by delay. The goals of this proposal are important in the understanding the maladaptive shortsighted actions of cigarette smokers, and could further the development of more effective prevention and cessation strategies.
This project is relevant to public health because it will further our understanding of why cigarette smokers seem so insensitive to the delayed negative consequences of their behavior. As a result, we may help to develop new strategies to prevent people from starting to smoke, as well as to help them quit successfully if they already smoke.
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