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National Institute on Drug Abuse awards $675,000 grant to Profs. Zvolensky and Norton

Psychology professors to lead study of smokers with anxiety trying to quit smoking

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., resulting in more than 440,000 premature deaths a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 25 million smokers will most likely die of a smoking related illness.

To address this problem and further research in the area, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) awarded a $675,000 grant to Michael J. Zvolensky, the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor in the department of clinical psychology and Peter J. Norton, associate professor of psychology.

“Despite interventions, such as nicotine replacement therapy and national advertising campaigns on the consequences of smoking, people in the smoking cessation and addiction field noticed the rates of tobacco use had stabilized, but the rates of tobacco addiction weren’t any different than they were 20 years ago,” said Dr. Zvolensky.

“We had treated all the easy people, he said. “Those left were the complicated cases with something else going on.

“What we know from our research is that people who smoke often have anxiety and other mental disorders and vice versa. Existing treatment plans for smoking cessation have not addressed anxiety and stress disorders in any formal and meaningful way.”

Professors Zvolensky and Norton will serve as co-principal investigators on a research project examining whether smoking cessation can be increased for anxious smokers using “transdiagnostic” cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a model that allows therapists to apply one set of principles across anxiety disorders.

Dr. Norton notes one of the biggest problems in helping anxious people quit smoking is that many people smoke cigarettes to calm their nerves or reduce stress. By combining an evidence-based anxiety disorder treatment and smoking cessation program, the project seeks to help smokers quit smoking – and maintain their abstinence - by reducing their anxiety.

Participants are needed for the study. The treatment-based research follows 60 adults, ages 18-65, with anxiety disorders who are smokers of at least 10 cigarettes a day. Participants must have smoked for a year or more and be willing to make an attempt to quit within 30 days of the start of the study. The study involves a telephone pre-screen and a baseline appointment. During the baseline appointment, participants will complete an interview, and if eligible, receive free nicotine replacement therapy. They will meet with therapists for 11-weeks to decrease anxiety and receive help through the cessation experience.

“The significance of this research is developing an effective smoking cessation treatment that targets people with anxiety disorders, so they will be smoke-free,” said Dr. Zvolensky. “The second goal is reducing the amount of use, also known as harm reduction. You don’t have to view things as complete abstinence to be successful. That’s important in the case of tobacco, in particular, because even simple reductions from 20 to 10 or from 10 to five cigarettes a day could have a linear decrease in exposure to a lot of other negative outcomes.”

A prominent researcher in health behaviors, Dr. Zvolensky has been cited extensively for his research on the relationship between anxiety and addiction. He has published more than 300 peer-reviewed articles; co-edited two books, Distress Tolerance: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications and Anxiety in Health Behaviors and Physical Illness; and launched the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory/Substance Use Treatment Clinic (AHRL-SUTC) as a free, empirically-based evaluation and treatment service center for adults struggling with anxiety disorders and substance use.

An expert on anxiety disorders, Dr. Norton serves as director of the Anxiety Disorder Clinic. He is the author of the book Group Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy of Anxiety. A Transdiagnostic Treatment Manual and co-author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook: Proven Strategies to Overcome Worry, Phobias, Panic and Obsessions. He has authored more than 90 research papers on such topics as anxiety disorders, CBT and chronic pain and serves on the editorial boards of two scientific journals.

To get more information about participating in the research study, please call AHRL-SUTC at (713) 743-8056 or visit

- by Melissa Carroll