Nature, Scientific Reports
According to the ‘hardening hypothesis’, average nicotine dependence will increase as less dependent smokers quit relatively easily in response to effective public health interventions, so that sustained progress in reducing smoking prevalence will depend on shifting the emphasis of tobacco control programs towards intensive treatment of heavily dependent smokers (who comprise an increasing fraction of continuing smokers). We used a system dynamics model of smoking behaviour to explore the potential for hardening in a population of smokers exposed to effective tobacco control measures over an extended period. Policy-induced increases in the per capita cessation rate are shown to lead inevitably to a decline in the proportion of smokers who are heavily dependent, contrary to the hardening hypothesis. Changes in smoking behaviour in Australia over the period 2001‒2016 resulted in substantial decreases in current smoking prevalence (from 23.1% in 2001 to 14.6% in 2016) and the proportion of heavily dependent smokers in the smoking population (from 52.1% to 36.9%). Public health interventions that have proved particularly effective in reducing smoking prevalence (tobacco tax increases, smoke-free environment legislation, antismoking mass media campaigns) are expected to also contribute to a decline in population-level nicotine dependence.