Smoking behavior influenced by what others think

Armen Hareyan's picture
Smoking behavior researcher Alice Lindeman
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A growing amount of research is finding that smoke-free air laws help smokers quit or reduce the amount that they smoke.

Rather than changing smokers' own attitudes about smoking, the influence of the policies, particularly the strong ones, might lie more in changing smokers' perceptions of other people's attitudes about smoking -- changing the perceived social norms, according to an Indiana University study involving smoke-free air laws in four Texas communities.

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"Everyone knows it's unhealthy to smoke," said Jon Macy, the study's lead researcher. "Our study suggests that the success of strong smoke-free air policies may be more about changing the social acceptability of smoking."

The IU study used a telephone survey of 407 adults to compare perceived norms about smoking between adults living in two cities with strong smoke-free air laws and adults living in two cities with weak smoke-free air laws. Those who lived in cities with a strong smoke-free air law perceived a lower prevalence of smoking in their city, were less likely to report that other people in their city believed smoking was acceptable, and were more likely to report that people in their city believed that smokers should take measures to not smoke. Macy said that while researchers are aware that smoke-free air policies, which are designed primarily to protect the public from the harm of secondhand tobacco smoke, also influence smoking behavior, the mechanism or cause has not been nailed down.

This study offers one possible explanation. Macy said insights provided by this study could help with public communication messages that accompany smoke-free air policies. The messages, for example, could tap into the impact societal norms have on smoking behavior.

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