By Lori Kleinsmith
Quitting smoking is good. Stigmatizing people who smoke isn’t.
There has been a significant decline in the rates of cigarette smoking over the past few decades, which can be attributed to a combination of strategies including taxes, laws, public education and de-normalization.
De-normalizing cigarette smoking has reduced its social acceptability by counteracting the depictions of smoking as cool or glamourous by tobacco companies.
However, while some people who smoke report the de-normalization of smoking has increased their intentions to quit, many others have experienced lower self-esteem and feelings of shame, guilt or hopelessness, which can hinder an attempt to quit or push them to try to hide their smoking.
The social stigma can be even worse for people who smoke and live in poverty.
Nicotine is highly addictive, both physically and psychologically. For every person you may know who has quit “cold turkey,” there are countless numbers more unable to maintain a quit attempt.
Quitting smoking is not impossible, but it is definitely not easy, especially the longer a person has been smoking. Research has shown it can take 10 or more attempts before success is maintained long term.
Friends and family may offer well-intentioned advice to a person who smokes, thinking this will motivate them to quit. However, this can often backfire and lead to further anxiety, self-blame and inaction.
The term “smoker” itself is a stigmatizing label that places blame on the person, rather than acknowledging the fact smoking is a complex addiction, not simply a lifestyle choice. Smoking is often a coping mechanism for stress and other difficult emotions, and can quickly become entrenched in a person’s life.
The last few generations of youths have grown up with mass media campaigns and talks with the school health nurse warning about the dangers of smoking.
We know smoking is harmful to our health. These well-intentioned messages may have contributed to fewer youths taking up smoking, but we have not eliminated smoking altogether. This is because behaviour changes are influenced by much more than just knowledge.
If we all followed the health messages taught in school or heard on television, everyone would be eating five to seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables, sleeping eight hours a night and exercising regularly. We know this is not the case.
I am not in any way condoning the use of cigarettes, and we must do all we can to prevent people from starting smoking and to support people who are trying to quit. I am suggesting a less stigmatizing and more empathetic approach is needed if we truly want to help.
• Avoid dirty looks, derogatory comments and guilt-inducing scare tactics. Choose your words more carefully and with sensitivity. Labels are for packages, not people. For example, speak about “a person who smokes” rather than “a smoker.” A “dirty habit” is actually an addiction.
• Change the way you think about people who smoke and see them as human beings with the same feelings, emotions and struggles that you experience. Think about your own personal challenges to make permanent changes in areas of your life. Offer compassion, not guilt.
• Ask a person how you can help, rather than offering up what you think is useful advice to quit smoking. Be encouraging. Words can sometimes hurt more than they can help.
Let’s all do our part to help foster a more positive, caring and supportive environment that does not continue to isolate or marginalize people who smoke. Understanding the challenges of quitting smoking and helping to build the confidence of people to quit when they are ready can go a long way.
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Lori Kleinsmith is a health promoter and smoke cessation counsellor at Bridges Community Health Centre in Port Colborne.