Smoking Habit for Sale

James Hurman, a 30-year-old man from Auckland, N.Z., is selling his smoking habit to the highest bidder. (Apparently, he hasn’t run across StickK, or been offered a 0 percent interest bank account to quit.)

Here’s what Hurman has to say for himself:

I’ve smoked cigarettes for twelve years and I’ve tried all the usual ways to quit smoking. Now that my wife Annabel and I are pregnant with our first child, it’s time to give up once and for all.

I’ve created a listing on the New Zealand online auction site, and on Monday 31 March, 2008, the highest bidder will receive a contract written by my lawyer, Chris Hoquard at Dominion Law, in which I hand over my right to smoke to them, and agree to pay them a forfeit of NZ$1000.00 [about $800 USD] per cigarette that I smoke at any time following the auction’s closure.

As far as I know, this is the first time somebody has sold their smoking habit.

I will donate the proceeds from the auction to the Cancer Society of New Zealand.

Assuming this is not a hoax — after George Fox, who can you trust? — it’s an interesting exercise, although it’s unclear to me how a violation of the contract can be verified other than Hurman’s self-admission. But even if the auction per se were to fail as a commitment device, I would think Hurman’s very public announcement of his quitting smoking might do the trick.

(Hat tip: James Barrington.)


People who are addicted are not in control, even if they show some ability to quit or moderate over the short term.

The best way to stop smoking is to admit you can't. Then seek help and support from others.

Don't rely on will power. You can be extremely strong willed but still fail to quit nicotine. Save your will pówer for your job, family, and hobbies. With nicotine, get help from others.


@Stephen (#15): How do I enroll in "[t]he program [that] pays the patients..."? Sounds like what I was looking for (assuming they also do nicotine testing, that is).

Goatboy Slim

Michael Feldman had a similar idea last year on his radio show "Whadya Know," which was inspired' I think, by the idea of carbon trading. People called in with a skill, such as piano playing, and would offer to trade that for something they wanted to do, but couldn't, such as quitting smoking or losing weight.



Humans are incredibly bad at managing behaviors with long-term consequences. As a psychological economist whose research focuses on addiction and savings behaviors, I teach my students about the importance of commitment devices.

Our brains focus tremendously on the short-term, but show great patience in the plans we make for the future. One problem is that when the future rolls around, it becomes the present, and we succumb to a short-term bias to heavily prefer the present--UNLESS our planning self has locked us into the patient course of action. Another problem is that there's not a whole lot of cost to smoking just one more cigarette, so we can always plan to quit "tomorrow." Only "tomorrow" never quite manages to arrive--unless we've tied our hands.

I'll give you two empirical examples.

First, one of the most successful addiction treatments (at least in the short-term) is a method called "contingency management," developed by Steven Higgins and others at the University of Vermont. Patients in this program undergo regular drug testing for the specific drug being treated (cocaine being the most common). The program pays the patients for every negative drug test, with the amount keyed to the number of sequential negative drug tests they've had (so a positive test not only costs them one payment, but makes all the subsequent payments smaller). This way, there's a very real, short-term cost to smoking this next cigarette.

For another example, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch at MIT once took a class taught in 3 sections and randomly varied each section's homework policy. The class had 3 major assignments, and the profs didn't give feedback on any of the assignments. They gave one section very firm deadlines that were evenly spaced throughout the term. They gave one section no deadline other than to hand in all three assignments by the end of the term. And they gave the third section the chance at the beginning of the term to commit themselves to any deadlines they wanted (including the end of the term), and then enforced those deadlines.

Fully rational, far-sighted students with no deadline would have planned ahead and completed the assignments over the course of the term, calculating the optimal moments to do them. Unsurprisingly, the students failed to do this. The students in the no deadline group, or in the choice group who didn't set deadlines, turned in their work all at the last minute and did quite poorly. Students with evenly spaced deadlines did much better, even beating out the students who did set their own deadlines but didn't space them out as much.

Short-term deadlines and consequences are vastly more powerful than dramatic long-term consequences. "Willpower" is a sucky plan. It's very hard to change human behavior; it's much much easier to change our environment and our incentives.



I guess in this way you have dual advantage working for you ........... First thing is that you will strive to get rid of the habbit & second you will have a good fortune ready for your child


So he can smoke all the cigars he wants??

Dan Ryan

So, it could cost me $1000 per cigarette or I could make me, my wife, and/or my new baby sick. Hmmm, let me think about which of these provides a disincentive to smoke...


I'm not convinced by all these different 'commitment devices'. Essentially they all reinforce this premise that 'I really want to keep smoking, so I need some incentive to stop'. In truth, every smoker is well aware of numerous incentives to give up, so why will one more more a difference?

Don Bixby

Does the other guy have to smoke all the cigarettes that he was smoking?


Ha! That guy's not really serious about quitting, it seems - I just read his proposed contract (see link above): it "specifically exclude[s] cigars"!
So maybe Nick (#2) is right and this is just a (commendable) fund-raising gig for the Cancer Society of NZ...


@INT (#3): I hear you. But just maybe a bit of both incentive and disincentive could go a longer way than either on its own. E.g. - as someone suggested in a comment to another post - StickK could give (part of) the money lost by the ones who didn't stick to the ones that did. Plus, I already have lots of disincentives - social pressure (my mom nags constantly), recent ban on smoking in pubs and on the workplace combined with unpleasant weather... All this has failed to cause even a reduction in my smoking. I cannot imagine taking yet another (ineffective, for all I know) disincentive voluntarily.

@Ryan (#5): That's true. But let's see... I spend about $70 a month on tobacco: not nearly enough.

Phill MV

Oh, bummer.
I was excited at the prospect of being able to /increase/ someone else's smoking habit.

"I purchased your smoking habit, and I'm increasing it to two packs a day!"


Flado: Someone will pay you $x for every month you don't smoke... you. (Where $x is the amount you normally spend on cigarettes per month.)


If his wife shows up missing a pinky finger we'll know that he went to Quitters, Inc.


I think this is a brilliant idea. Having struggled with addiction myself, I can testify that disincentives work much better than incentives. By working with an incentive, there is no immediate cost, and therefore no pressing need to quit, only the opportunity cost of indulging. Anybody that has suffered an addiction and tried to quit will tell you that forgoing an 'incentive' to quit is always worth less than the relief of satisfying a drive as consuming as an addiction. However, losing something big (like $800) everytime you indulge will create a very pressing 'need' to quit and to quit NOW. With an incentive there's always 'next time' to earn that incentive. With an incentive, life doesn't change when you indulge, but with a disincentive, you lose now!



Let us not forget that even seemingly altruistic behavior is often driven by self-interest---that is to say, incentive.



Yet another commitment device intended to work backwards... I mean, I'd prefer an *incentive* to quit smoking to a disincentive. Initially, I thought this guy had finally got it, but alas: "I will donate the proceeds from the auction to ..."

So, StickK is a neat idea and all, but if I think I'd sooner quit smoking if somebody (e.g., my health insurer) promised to *pay* me $x for every month I don't smoke than if somebody threatened to *take* $x for every cigarette I smoke - I mean, there's not much incentive to enlist to StickK in the first place.

Steve Parkinson

sigh, I didn't see the stickk reference until just now.

consider my previous post retracted. I guess I should have filed the patent after all.

Open Your Eyes

New drug: Chantix (varenicline). Require a doctor's perscription. Some insurance companies will cover it (like mine).

I have been taking it for 3 weeks now. I haven't smoked in 2 weeks (first week you keep smoking while slowly building the dosage). No nicotine fits, no withdrawals. It's great!

I have smoked for over 30 years and tried to quit dozens of times... cold turkey, Nicoret, the patch, slowly cutting down and every and any method (even smoker's annon) you can think of.

This is a miracle pill! I highly recommend it to anyone serious about quiting cigarettes! Forget about the rest...

nat turner

If this guy does not have the strength of will to quit his dirty habit , it is too bad he has already reproduced .