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Speakeasy Smoking? The Making of a Stigma

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Photo by Ferran Jorda. | CC, Click on image for license and information.

Do you have a light?

It’s 10:00 am, and all over New York City, office workers are headed outside. They’ve checked their email, drank their morning cup(s) of coffee, and had their morning meetings. Now they’ll ride the elevators down to the lobbies of their buildings, push the doors open and step outside. And in a corner off-to-the side, either in small groups or (more typically) by themselves with their smart phones to occupy their attention, they’ll light up.

Fifty years ago, smoking was a matter of preference. (Didn’t all the cool kids do it?) Today it’s a vice. Smoking has been moralized; and it has gained a heavy social value that we use to judge smokers and leverage to try alter their behavior. On a daily basis, they’re confronted with advertising and public service announcements that tell them they’ll live longer, reduce the chances of developing certain types of cancer, and increase the quality of life of the people around them if they stop smoking. And while these things may be true, these messages are accompanied with a degree of admonishment. Smokers are chastised through the mechanism of disgust: Wrinkled noses, irritated coughs, and outright dirty looks are signs meant to tell smokers their actions are unacceptable. These social markers form the basis for a shift in public acceptance; they’re a foundation of social stigma, which is the most effective means of social control.

That’s disgusting!

Disgust is an interesting sensation. It may have evolved to help our species determine what to eat. By linking feelings of nausea to certain foodstuffs, we learned what we should avoid and passed that knowledge onto others. But there’s more that goes along with disgust than the sensation of nausea: disgust may begin in the gut, but it’s conveyed through facial expressions and physical distancing.These signals have been appropriated for more than just avoiding unpalatable, inedible, or dangerous foodstuffs: disgust responses have come to be a marker for social rejection. Objects, people, and behaviors can incite feelings of disgust which in turn can effect judgment and behavior.

We learn disgust on two levels. First as members of a larger social order we learn that there are certain universals that are disgusting within our cultural groups and they should be avoided. Then as individuals we determine that there are degrees of tolerance for disgust that relate to personal preference. In both cases, disgust works as a deterrent because its associated signals imply contamination. Disgusting items, people, and behaviors are pollutants in that they can alter the things that they come in contact with and make them disgusting too, changing their status to one of socially acceptable. Disgust provides protection. As a preference, disgust protects the individual’s right to choose. However, once a preference begins to impede on others’ abilities to choose, it can no longer be regarded as a preference. It presents a larger threat to the social order that must be managed.

Revisiting peer pressure.

It used to be that peer pressure had a negative connotation to it—”just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you have to.” Today it’s almost the opposite: precisely because everyone else is doing it (or not doing it), you should too. The often discussed Framingham data is a shining example of this:

In the early ’70s, 65 percent of Framingham residents ages 40 to 49 smoked regularly. By 2001, only 22 percent consumed one or more cigarettes daily. But the smoke didn’t clear at random: Friends and family had a decisive influence. “People quit together,” Fowler says, “or they didn’t quit at all.”

The scientists working with this dataset found that people quit smoking in groups. It was a ripple effect: friends of smokers were 36% more likely to quit if the smoker quit. Smokers went from being fairly equally distributed throughout the Framingham network to existing in isolated pockets. As isolated pockets, smokers are more visible as an anomaly.

In this case, the power of peer pressure is been magnified by the involvement of social agencies that promote smoking cessation. The rising body of data that reveals second-hand cigarette smoke can be harmful for non-smokers clearly casts smoking as a contaminant. Once it had been established that smoking was harmful to more than just the smoker, it became a social imperative to chastise the smoker. A growing body of medical literature and governmental policies are encouraging non-smokers to speak up. That wrinkled nose, that irritated cough, and that dirty look have all been sanctioned as a means of identifying an action that is detrimental to the group. Smoking has been marked as a universally disgusting action.

“Don’t you know that’s bad for you?

How do you know whether something is right or wrong? Do you feel it? Possibly. When you like something, you feel good about it—acquiring it causes you no sense of discomfort. It actually makes you feel satisfied or happy. Similarly, when you dislike something, it tends to make you feel badly. You may feel anxious or nauseas or uneasy. In this same vein, when you “do the right thing,” it generates positive affect in yourself and is confirmed by the positive response of anyone who may have witnessed the act. When you’re doing something largely unacceptable, you likely tend to try to hide it, which increases feelings of anxiety and negative affect—and if you don’t know you’re doing something wrong, the general responses of people around you are a good clue that something is amiss.

The same is true of disgust. Marked strongly by the sensation of nausea, disgust is one of those gut reactions that help make us decisions about right and wrong. Seeing signs of disgust on the faces of those around us tells us something about the acceptability of our actions. Is it no wonder then that smoking is become more of a solitary action?

Smokers are tolerated only if they are in their restricted areas (e.g., outside of the building, around the corner, away from the general flow of traffic), and even then just barely. Many smoke in a way to avoid contact with others (e.g., staring off into space, reading on smart phones, making phone calls). They make their smoke breaks into a busy period when it’s supposed to be a break in part to minimize the responses from others around them because those responses have gained a preference in the social order. At some point in the future, it may be illegal to smoke cigarettes at all. In which case, would we see the rise of Prohibition-type methods of acquiring, distributing, and smoking cigarettes?

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. harleyrider1777 9:36 am 01/14/2013

    The rising body of data that reveals second-hand cigarette smoke can be harmful for non-smokers clearly casts smoking as a contaminant.

    Oh really! A mountain of JUNK SCIENCE is what there is.

    They have created a fear that is based on nothing’’
    World-renowned pulmonologist, president of the prestigious Research Institute Necker for the last decade, Professor Philippe Even, now retired, tells us that he’s convinced of the absence of harm from passive smoking. A shocking interview.

    What do the studies on passive smoking tell us?

    PHILIPPE EVEN. There are about a hundred studies on the issue. First surprise: 40% of them claim a total absence of harmful effects of passive smoking on health. The remaining 60% estimate that the cancer risk is multiplied by 0.02 for the most optimistic and by 0.15 for the more pessimistic … compared to a risk multiplied by 10 or 20 for active smoking! It is therefore negligible. Clearly, the harm is either nonexistent, or it is extremely low.

    It is an indisputable scientific fact. Anti-tobacco associations report 3 000-6 000 deaths per year in France …

    I am curious to know their sources. No study has ever produced such a result.

    Many experts argue that passive smoking is also responsible for cardiovascular disease and other asthma attacks. Not you?

    They don’t base it on any solid scientific evidence. Take the case of cardiovascular diseases: the four main causes are obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes. To determine whether passive smoking is an aggravating factor, there should be a study on people who have none of these four symptoms. But this was never done. Regarding chronic bronchitis, although the role of active smoking is undeniable, that of passive smoking is yet to be proven. For asthma, it is indeed a contributing factor … but not greater than pollen!

    The purpose of the ban on smoking in public places, however, was to protect non-smokers. It was thus based on nothing?

    Absolutely nothing! The psychosis began with the publication of a report by the IARC, International Agency for Research on Cancer, which depends on the WHO (Editor’s note: World Health Organization). The report released in 2002 says it is now proven that passive smoking carries serious health risks, but without showing the evidence. Where are the data? What was the methodology? It’s everything but a scientific approach. It was creating fear that is not based on anything.

    Why would anti-tobacco organizations wave a threat that does not exist?

    The anti-smoking campaigns and higher cigarette prices having failed, they had to find a new way to lower the number of smokers. By waving the threat of passive smoking, they found a tool that really works: social pressure. In good faith, non-smokers felt in danger and started to stand up against smokers. As a result, passive smoking has become a public health problem, paving the way for the Evin Law and the decree banning smoking in public places. The cause may be good, but I do not think it is good to legislate on a lie. And the worst part is that it does not work: since the entry into force of the decree, cigarette sales are rising again.

    Why not speak up earlier?

    As a civil servant, dean of the largest medical faculty in France, I was held to confidentiality. If I had deviated from official positions, I would have had to pay the consequences. Today, I am a free man.

    Le Parisien

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  2. 2. Autaut 10:26 am 01/14/2013

    Dear harleyrider1777,
    your meta-analysis of “about a hundred studies” lacks mathematical correctness as much as it misses any sources, which you would inquire later on claims of the articel.

    Because I’m not familiar with those studies, I can only comment on your maths.
    You claim, risk would be “multiplied by 0.02 for the most optimistic and by 0.15 for the more pessimistic”.
    If you assumed a baseline risk of one percent (=0.01),
    and multiplied by 0.02 or 0.15 you get 0.0002 or 0.0015.

    Ignoring the actual baseline, my point is obvious, you imply that passive smoking actually reduces cancer risk drastically.

    Coming up with such figures casts doubt on your intention as a “free man”


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  3. 3. patrickh74 1:21 pm 01/14/2013

    Autaut, you missed the point entirely. Harleyrider1777 is simply putting out there what has transpired, from his piont of view. We cannot attack him for sharing his believed truths. He raises valid points and this subject needs to be investigated INDEPENDANTLY!!! Seems to be a lot of fear mongering to scare smokers into making the “right” choice. Sounds very similar to this global warming nonsense, in my opinion. Think about that.

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  4. 4. Hasufin 5:04 pm 01/14/2013

    It seems to me a fundamental difference between the treatment of smoking today, and alcohol consumption prior to Prohibition, is the lack of an actual enforced prohibition as such. At that time, alcohol consumption was widely and commonly accepted – although there was a vocal part of the populace against it, it was nonetheless socially acceptable to consume alcohol. In an attempt to remove that, it was wholly prohibited by law; there was comparatively little social pressure.

    Smoking is today instead being opposed by what I might characterize as “softer” methods: cigarettes and tobacco are heavily taxes, sale is not allowed but increasingly difficult, and while there remain areas where smoking is allowed they are shrinking. Instead of BANNING smoking, it is being made progressively more uncomfortable.

    I’m not sure I foresee a time when smoking is subject to a blanket prohibition. Rather, I suspect that there will come a time when stores do not bother selling tobacco, there are no designated smoking areas… and there are no smokers. Gentle pressure may succeed where absolute condemnation fails.

    (Let me be clear: my own opinion on smoking is pretty complicated. I am not advocating for or against smoking; I am commenting on the effectiveness of the different tactics.)

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  5. 5. harleyrider1777 9:05 am 01/15/2013


    In 1991 NIOSH { OSHA’ research group} Looked into ETS although at the time they recommended reducing ETS exposure they found the studies lacking.

    NIOSH recognizes that these recent epidemiological studies have several shortcomings: lack of objective measures for charachterizing and quantifying exposures,failures to adjust for all confounding variables,potential misclassification of ex-smokers as non-smokers,unavailability of comparison groups that have not been exposed to ETS, and low statistical power.

    Research is needed to investigate the following issues:

    1. More acurate quantification of the increased risk of lung cancer associated with ETS exposure,including determination of other contributing factors[e.g.,occupational exposures]that may accentuate the risk.

    2.Determination of the concentration and distributuion of ETS components in the workplace to help quantify the risk for the U.S. working population.

    a.The association of ETS exposure with cancer other than lung cancer
    b.The relationship between ETS exposure and cardiovascular disease
    c.The relationship between ETS exposure and nonmalignant resporatory diseases such asthma,bronchitis and emphysema, and
    the effects of ETS on lung function and respiratory systems
    c. Possible mechanisms of ETS damage to the cardiovascular system,such as platelet aggravation,increased COHb leading to oxygen depravation,or damage to endothelium
    d.Effects of workplace smoking restrictions on the ETS exposure of nonsmokersand ETS-related health effects in nonsmokers

    After ten years of no conclusive research and lack of studies that didn’t eliminate the bias OSHA decided that the studies did not have substance and here is there present policy.

    Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS)

    Because the organic material in tobacco doesn’t burn completely, cigarette smoke contains more than 4,700 chemical compounds. Although OSHA has no regulation that addresses tobacco smoke as a whole, 29 CFR 1910.1000 Air contaminants, limits employee exposure to several of the main chemical components found in tobacco smoke. In normal situations, exposures would not exceed these permissible exposure limits (PELs), and, as a matter of prosecutorial discretion, OSHA will not apply the General Duty Clause to ETS.

    OSHA finally makes a statement on shs/ets :

    Field studies of environmental tobacco smoke indicate that under normal conditions, the components in tobacco smoke are diluted below existing Permissible Exposure Levels (PELS.) as referenced in the Air Contaminant Standard (29 CFR 1910.1000)…It would be very rare to find a workplace with so much smoking that any individual PEL would be exceeded.” -Letter From Greg Watchman, Acting Sec’y, OSHA

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  6. 6. harleyrider1777 9:08 am 01/15/2013

    The point here is the studies are all at or near the NEIL point. The second hand smoke myth is just that a myth created out of then air literally:

    About 90% of secondary smoke is composed of water vapor and ordinary air with a minor amount of carbon dioxide. The volume of water vapor of second hand smoke becomes even larger as it qickly disperses into the air,depending upon the humidity factors within a set location indoors or outdoors. Exhaled smoke from a smoker will provide 20% more water vapor to the smoke as it exists the smokers mouth.

    4 % is carbon monoxide.

    6 % is those supposed 4,000 chemicals to be found in tobacco smoke. Unfortunatley for the smoke free advocates these supposed chemicals are more theorized than actually found.What is found is so small to even call them threats to humans is beyond belief.Nanograms,picograms and femptograms……
    (1989 Report of the Surgeon General p. 80).

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