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Smokers are drawn to objects in their environment that are related to smoking, often without realising. We designed a computer-delivered training programme to divert smokers’ attention away from smoking-related objects to see whether it helped them reduce the urge to smoke and stop smoking altogether. 

Why is this important?

There are many reasons why smokers feel the urge to smoke. For example, seeing a cigarette lighter or someone smoking a cigarette could create urges to smoke and prompt smoking. Smokers who are prone to noticing these smoking 'cues' may therefore find it difficult to stop smoking. There are currently no treatments to help smokers avoid having their attention captured by smoking cues. Laboratory studies have shown that smokers can be trained to divert their attention away from smoking cues using a distraction task called a visual probe task, which is carried out on a computer. No other study has looked at whether this training procedure can be used alongside NHS stop smoking treatments for smokers who are trying to quit and help people reduce their urge to smoke and stop smoking altogether.


The design of the study was a randomised controlled trial. We randomly allocated 118 smokers to one of two groups, one with training and one without training. Both groups also received behavioural support for seven weekly sessions and nicotine patches for 8-12 weeks. Patients started the training one week before their quit day. They completed five weekly sessions of training in total, with each session lasting 20 minutes. They rated how much they felt the urge to smoke and reported whether they had quit or not at each weekly session and again at follow up at eight weeks, three months and six months.

How this benefits patients:

The study findings tell us that although it is possible for patients to carry out computer-based attention retraining alongside standard treatment for stopping smoking, training people to avoid looking at smoking cues in clinic does not help them reduce their urge to smoke or stop smoking. This training procedure should not be used in stop smoking clinics.

Further information:

Full project title:

A double blind randomised controlled trial of attentional retraining for attentional bias in smokers attempting cessation (ARTS).

Length of project:

3 years

Funded by:







External collaborators:

  • Saul Shiffman
  • Stuart Ferguson
  • Linda Nichols
  • Roger Holder
  • Mohammed Mohammed
  • Stephen Sutton