When is a Smoker Not a Smoker?

“I’m a non-smoker,” said Susan Longardino, standing on the sidewalk outside the San Francisco nail salon where she had an appointment.  “I have never bought a pack, but when I’m out with friends, after a nice dinner, or go to a club, I’ll generally have a cigarette.”

“No, I don’t smoke,” said newly-hired waiter Stewart Merritt at the entrance to a San Francisco seafood restaurant that caters to tourists.  “Only when I’m intoxicated or I feel some stress.”

Denial?  Maybe.  Merritt and Longardino are among a rapidly growing segment of tobacco users which scientists call “social smokers.”  It is a group (about 30% of California smokers) only recently identified by health professionals.  But since 1971, they have been targeted by a multimillion dollar cigarette marketing campaign, which did exceptionally detailed and intensive study on these smokers.

“They analyzed them, kind of figured out their demographics, their psychological profiles and know how to market to them.  They even designed products to attract social smokers,” says UC San Francisco pulmonologist and Center for Tobacco Research scientist Dr. Rebecca Schane.  Schane has co-authored an article for the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, based on her extensive review of many of the ten million previously secret documents tobacco companies released in the $205 billion Master Settlement Agreement of 46 states’ litigation.

“(Tobacco companies) hired anthropologists, psychologists and behavioral scientists to figure out what made social smokers tick,” says Schane.  “Their research shows (social smokers) are a unique group, and whether they are really addicted (to nicotine) remains to be determined.  They smoke to gain peer acceptance, they want to be liked by the group.”  Schane, an expert on lung disease, says tobacco companies devised marketing strategies to make smoking appear chic, sexy and glamorous.  “There is nothing glamorous,” she says, “about lung cancer.”

Schane and co-author Prof. Stan Glantz of UCSF’s Medical School, are trying to use the tobacco marketing research to find effective ways to get social smokers to stop lighting up.  “(Big Tobacco) identified this group long before public health did,” says Glantz, a veteran of the tobacco wars.  Now it’s time, he says, to use the psychological profiles to help social smokers avoid cigarettes.

“They are not motivated by their own health risks,” explains Schane, “because they don’t identify themselves as smokers.  They feel they can quit any time, and don’t associate the risks of lung or cardiovascular disease with their behavior.”  Just one to four cigarettes a day, Schane points out, ups the risk of lung cancer five times over that of non-smokers.

“They are motivated by peer-group and social interaction,” she says, “so an effective message might include the risks of second-hand smoke on friends and family.  Social smokers are sensitive to those around them.”  She is preparing another article on health risks and potential smoking cessation strategies for social smokers.

She also says physicians and health workers need to be aware that social smokers will deny they smoke unless pressed.

“I don’t smoke.  Smokers are people who smoke every day,” says Josie Venuto, a twenty-something tourist from Miami having lunch on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.  “That’s not me.  I only smoke when I drink.”

“I’m not a smoker either,” says Luc Kanea, a lanky young man from Krakow, Poland.  “I just do this for fun, when I go out with friends, have a beer or go to a bar,” he said as he took a long drag on a Camel cigarette.

They’re blowing smoke, damaging their lungs and making tobacco companies richer.

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One Response to “When is a Smoker Not a Smoker?”

  1. Jim W Hildreth Says:

    When is a smoker not a smoker, reminds me of the woman who claims to be a vegetarian, she only eats “Bacon”

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