Programs that stigmatize smoking can backfire.
That’s the conclusion of new research that found that, while portraying smoking as socially unacceptable can persuade some smokers to quit, it can make others angry and defensive and harm their self-esteem, making it harder to quit.
To reach that conclusion, the researchers reviewed nearly 600 studies. In one study, 27 percent of smokers felt they were treated differently due to their smoking. In another, between 30 percent and 40 percent of smokers reported experiencing high levels of family disapproval and social rejection. Yet another study found that 39 percent of smokers believed people thought less of them.
In many studies, smokers used words such as “leper,” “outcast,” “bad person,” “low-life” and “pathetic” to describe how negative public health messages about smoking made them feel.
For some smokers, such stigmatization led to increased resistance to quitting, a return to smoking after quitting, increased stress and self-imposed social isolation.
“The stereotypes that smokers deal with are almost universally negative,” study co-author Sara Evans-Lacko said in a Pennsylvania State University news release.
“The stigma for parents who smoke is particularly strong,” added Evans-Lacko, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science in England.
The findings show that while negative messages can persuade some smokers to quit, anti-smoking programs should also use positive approaches, such as highlighting the benefits of quitting, the researchers said.
“Future research is needed to understand what factors are related to how individuals respond to smoking stigma,” study co-author Rebecca Evans-Polce said in the news release. Evans-Polec is a postdoctoral fellow in Penn State’s Methodology Center and the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.
The study findings were published Nov. 2 in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
The American Cancer Society offers a guide to quitting smoking.