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Am Fam Physician. 2000;62(3):579-584

See related patient information handout on nicotine dependence, written by the author of this article.

Family physicians can assess the smoking behavior of their patients in a few minutes, using carefully chosen questions. The CAGE questionnaire for smoking (modified from the familiar CAGE questionnaire for alcoholism), the “four Cs” test and the Fagerström Test for Nicotine Dependence help make the diagnosis of nicotine dependence based on standard criteria. Additional questions can be used to determine the patient's readiness to change and the nature of the reinforcement the patient receives from smoking. These tools can assist family physicians in guiding patients to quit smoking—the single most important thing smokers can do to improve their health.

Family physicians can diagnose, evaluate and treat nicotine dependence within the limited time frame of an office visit.1 This article describes several assessment strategies. Family physicians can select the one that best fits their style of practice. The information gathered by these assessments can then be used to provide individualized treatment plans.

CAGE Questionnaire

The CAGE questionnaire is a simple, accurate tool that has been used for many years to screen patients for addictive disorders.2,3 The CAGE questions have been revised to apply to smoking behavior,4 as shown in Table 1, and can be included in a clinical interview.

1. Have you ever felt a need to Cut down orcontrol your smoking, but had difficulty doing so?
2. Do you ever get Annoyed or angry with people who criticize your smoking or tell you that you ought to quit smoking?
3. Have you ever felt Guilty about your smoking or about something you did while smoking?
4. Do you ever smoke within half an hour of waking up (Eye-opener)?

Examples of actual patient responses to these questions include the following:

Cut down: “I wanted to quit smoking, but I couldn't do it, so I switched to a low-tar cigarette.”

Annoyed: “Last week, my granddaughter said to me, ‘Grandma, I wish you would stop smoking,’ and I snapped at her, ‘Well, I'm old enough to smoke—are you?’”

Guilty: “I should have stopped smoking long ago—my family wouldn't have to suffer on my account like this if I had.”

Eye-opener: “I smoke my first cigarette before my feet hit the floor.”

Experience has shown the CAGE questionnaire to be nonthreatening. In one study, medical outpatients were given the CAGE questions embedded in a self-administered questionnaire about health habits, and most of them did not realize that they were filling out an assessment for addictions.4

‘Four Cs’ Test

Psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers and addiction counselors rely on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. (DSM-IV) to diagnose substance dependence.5 These criteria apply to all addictive substances (e.g., alcohol, opioids, cannabis, amphetamines) and can be grouped into four categories that conveniently begin with the letter “C”:

  1. Compulsion—the intensity with which the desire to use a chemical overwhelms the patient's thoughts, feelings and judgment.

  2. Control—the degree to which patients can (or cannot) control their chemical use once they have started using.

  3. Cutting down—the effects of reducing chemical intake; withdrawal symptoms.

  4. Consequences—denial or acceptance of the damage caused by the chemical.

The four Cs test can be used to assess a patient's dependence on nicotine (Table 2). Family physicians who feel comfortable discussing psychologic issues with their patients may prefer this approach, which documents a DSM-IV–based diagnosis of nicotine dependence.6

Do you ever smoke more that you intend?
Have you ever neglected a responsibility because you were smoking, or so you could smoke?
Have you felt the need to control how much you smoke but were unable to do so easily?
Have you ever promised that you would quit smoking and bought a pack of cigarettes that same day?
Cutting down (and withdrawal symptoms)
Have you ever tried to stop smoking? How many times? For how long?
Have you ever had any of the following symptoms when you went for a while without a cigarette: agitation, difficulty concentrating, irritability, mood swings? If so, did the symptom go away after you smoked a cigarette?
How long have you known that smoking was hurting your body?
If you continue to smoke, how long do you expect to live? If you were able to quit smoking today and never start again, how long do you think you might live?

Fagerström Test

Patients who quit smoking and relapse within two or three weeks usually do so to relieve withdrawal symptoms secondary to their physical dependence on nicotine. The Fagerström Test for Nicotine Dependence is a standard instrument for assessing the intensity of this physical addiction.7 The Fagerström test helps family physicians document the indications for prescribing medication for nicotine withdrawal. In the version shown in Figure 1, the language has been modified for American smokers.

The higher the Fagerström score, the more intense is the patient's physical dependence on nicotine. Higher scores indicate that treatment of withdrawal symptoms, usually with nicotine replacement therapy, will be an important factor in the patient's plan of care.

Assessing Reinforcement

Patients who quit smoking but relapse more than six weeks later are not smoking to relieve withdrawal symptoms; their relapses are caused by a desire to smoke (craving) induced by internal or external events. Assessing how each patient's smoking serves as a reinforcer can help the family physician identify potential relapse triggers for that person.

Physicians who have never smoked must make an effort to understand why smokers find cigarettes so reinforcing. Asking the following questions of a patient can help identify the reinforcing aspects of smoking behavior:


“Lots of smokers like the way a cigarette feels in their fingers. Or, they enjoy the puffing, the smoke and the warmth of a cigarette. What about you?”


“Lots of smokers have special things they like to do with a cigarette, such as what they do with the cigarette pack, the way they open it, the way they light up and the way they puff on the cigarette. What about you?”


“What sort of people smoke (the patient's brand of cigarettes)? What are they like?”


“Lots of smokers discover that cigarettes help them deal with stressful feelings, such as anger, frustration or boredom. What about you?”

Smoker's Profile

Elements gathered from the preceding assessments have been formulated into a smoker's profile; this profile is now available, along with explanatory material for patient use, on the author's Web site ( The site includes an eight-page questionnaire to gather demographic information about patient smoking.8 There is no charge for patients or professionals to access this site or download the information.

The smoker's profile scores the intensity of the following four reasons that people smoke cigarettes: to relieve stress, to perform a conditioned response, to relieve withdrawal symptoms or to treat an underlying depressive state (Table 3).

Stress relief
When you're frustrated or angry, do you automatically think about smoking a cigarette?
If you're upset or scared, does a cigarette help you calm down?
Do you rely on cigarettes when you're under stress?
Recall a time when you stopped smoking for a while. After you stopped smoking, did you want a cigarette more whenever you got upset or angry? Did you miss cigarettes more when you were under a lot of stress or tension?
Conditioned responses
How often do you smoke while you're driving a car or drinking a cup of coffee?
If you're with someone who's smoking, do you automatically smoke, too?
Do you usually smoke a cigarette during or after a meal?
Recall a time when you stopped smoking for a while. Did being around smokers make it hard to not smoke? Were there certain people, places or things that made you want to smoke?
Relief of withdrawal symptoms
When do you smoke your first cigarette of the day?
Do you get irritable if you have to go more than two hours without a cigarette?
Do you have trouble concentrating if you're not smoking?
Recall a time when you stopped smoking for a while. Did you get irritable or moody during the first few days after you stopped? Did you have trouble concentrating during the first few days after you stopped?
Elevation of depressed mood
Recall a time when you stopped smoking for a while. Did you become more depressed?
When you woke up in the morning, did you feel that you could spend all day in bed?
How was your energy level after you stopped smoking?

Readiness to Change

After using one or more of the assessment tools, the family physician will have sufficient information to know what a patient needs to do to quit smoking. However, the physician will not yet know if the patient is ready to make a serious attempt to quit. Merely asking “Do you currently smoke?” gathers information about the patient's behavior but not about the cognition behind the behavior. Knowing the patient's cognitive set is crucial to success in quitting smoking because advice and treatment must match the patient's cognitive stage to be effective.

The Transtheoretical Model of Change is based on discrete stages along the continuum of change in cigarette smoking behavior. These stages are termed precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and relapse (Table 4).911

Stage of readinessPatient response to: “What are your thoughts and feelings about quitting smoking?”Goal of interventionTypical physician intervention
Precontemplation“I like to smoke.”Introduce ambivalence“Your emphysema will improve after you've quit smoking.”
Contemplation“I like to smoke, but I know I need to quit.”Resolve ambivalence“How will your life be better after you've quit smoking?”
Preparation“I'm ready to quit.”Identify successful strategies“Choose a ‘quit day’ and let's make plans for it.”
Action“I'm not smoking, but I still think about smoking from time to time.”Provide solutions to specific relapse triggers“How can you deal with your desire to smoke in those situations?”
Maintenance“I used to smoke.”Solidify patient's commitment to a smoke-free life“This would be a good time to share your experience with other people.”

Several instruments have been designed to measure the patient's readiness to change. The best known is the University of Rhode Island Change Assessment (URICA).12 However, most physicians will do just as well with the following two-question assessment to determine the patient's stage of change:

  1. “Do you currently smoke?”

  2. (If yes): “What are your thoughts and feelings about quitting smoking?”


Patients in the precontemplation stage respond with a nonambiguous answer, indicating that they have no intention of changing. Some actual responses by smokers in this stage have been the following:

Anger: “Just get off my back, all right?”

Entitlement: “Who are you to tell me what to do?”

Ignorance: “I already smoke a low-tar cigarette, so there's no need to quit.”

Denial: “Some people get lung cancer from smoking, but it won't happen to me.”

Defiance: “I'll smoke if I want to.”

The goal of counseling patients in the pre-contemplation stage is to introduce ambivalence, so they will begin to consider quitting; prescribing medication and strategies for cessation does not help these patients quit smoking.


Patients in the contemplation stage usually respond with two answers, one about wanting to quit and the other about wanting to continue smoking. Some actual responses by smokers in this stage have been:

“I want to quit smoking, but I don't think I'll be able to.”

“I like smoking, but I'm concerned about this cough.”

The goal of counseling patients in the contemplation stage is to explore both sides of their ambivalence (with the emphasis on how their lives will improve after quitting), which helps them resolve in favor of quitting.


Patients in the preparation stage respond with a nonambiguous answer, indicating that they have reached a resolution. Even though they are still smoking, they have made the decision to quit. They typically respond with statements like these:

“You finally convinced me to quit smoking, Doc.”

“I've heard there's some new medication out to help me quit.”

The goal of counseling patients in this stage is to assess their previous attempts to quit and identify what worked before (to build on prior successes) and what were the barriers to success in the past.

Patients in the precontemplation stage and patients in the contemplation stage have not yet decided to quit smoking; only patients in the preparation stage have reached that point.


The physician's responsibility is to guide patients one stage at a time toward the point where they actually stop smoking—which is the action stage. Although this transition takes some patients many years, others move from-contemplation through preparation and into action within a single clinical encounter.

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