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The Psychology of Smoking
Enlightenment without cigarettes
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2006-11-21 06:50 (KST)   
People smoke even though they are well aware what the risks of smoking are. So if educating smokers isn't the answer, what is?

Who do you know that smokes? My girlfriend is an on-again off-again smoker, but her mother, brother and sister-in-law are heavy smokers. My father is a once-a-day smoker, but my sister smokes more. I was surrounded by smokers during my year in the Air Force. Neither me nor my brother smoke. So what explains this range of different behaviors? More importantly, how can we get those we love to stop?

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Is the answer parental control? Is it the mantra: prevention is better? Unfortunately, parents telling teenagers not to do something is in many cases going to activate a rebellious urge to experiment. Despite the anti-smoking movement, the number of teens who have taken up this dirty habit has jumped 73 percent since 1988.

There is a subtle psychology at work here, which is deeper and more complex than the quick fix strategy of an anti-smoking lobby. Teenagers can be seen as a population in waiting. Theoretically they are ready for a number of the roles of adulthood. Because they have no experience on their collective resume they are seldom given the job. Thus, to a large extent, teenagers look to role models and leaders for their cues to do something new. They may want an excuse to cheat in a test, to tell a lie, to sleep with someone -- and when they see it being done by someone else, they feel permission has been given to do the same.

In the same way smoking is a negative temptation but the stimulus actually comes from the personality who influences them to smoke. They may look at an individual, and decide, "that's cool," and in so doing find permission for themselves to do the same.

There's a world of difference between the offensive psychology of being educated not to do something, and seeking permission to do what you're tempted to do. Permission-giving is very specific. It leads to new epidemics of behavior in specific categories, which is why smoking catches on so effectively, spreads so quickly and is so hard to combat.

Smoking also represents a kind of private language that members within a certain group speak. It includes them, it represents them, and it allows access between members. This means there is a tribal component, and tribes are never easy to wipe out. Think of Afghanistan and Iraq.

If the tribe is a difficult adversary, the individual smoker is just as thorny. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, "The Tipping Point," did a survey of smokers and discovered that smoking "seemed to evoke a particular kind of childhood memory -- vivid, precise, emotionally charged." Gladwell realized that smoking was associated with one thing to just about everyone: sophistication.

The Tipping-People in smoking are often parents who smoke, or even grandparents. These are the permission-givers who leave an indelible and powerful print on the young smoker-to-be. It may be someone outside of the family, but in some way, that person must have a close connection to the family or the teen, or both. Gladwell quotes this example:

"When I was around nine or ten my parents got an English au pair, Maggie, who came and stayed with us one summer. She was maybe twenty. She was very sexy and wore a bikini at the Campbell's pool. She was famous with the grownup men for doing handstands in her bikini... Maggie smoked, and I used to beg her to let me smoke too."

Furthermore, Gladwell suggests that there is a common personality to hard-core smokers. Research conducted by Hans Eysenck, a psychologist, has shown the hard-core smoker is quintessentially an extrovert who craves excitement, is temperamental (loses his or her temper easily), takes risks, is spontaneous and is both somewhat unreliable and emotional. Moreover hard core smokers have been shown in countless studies to have a greater sex drive than non-smokers, and often have a greater attraction to members of the opposite sex.

Eysenck quotes these statistics: 15 percent of non-smoking white women attending college had had sex, with 55 percent of white women smokers already sexually active. The numbers for men were virtually the same.

Gladwell writes that "the average smoking household spends 73 percent more on coffee and two or three times as much on beer as the average non-smoking household."

Smokers can also be typified according to jobs (or roles). Think of actors, soldiers, hairdressers, models, and more doctors and nurses than makes sense (in their profession).

Gladwell summarizes the heavy smoker's traits as follows:

- defiance
- sexual precocity
- honesty
- impulsiveness
- indifference (to the opinion of others)
- sensation seeking

Here's where it gets interesting. If you consider the above characteristics you have a definition of exactly the personality type that attracts teens. Gladwell points out that Maggie the au pair wasn't cool because she smoked, she smoked because she was cool. He reiterates: "Smoking was never cool. Smokers are cool."

The anti-smoking movement has directed a great deal of its focus to dismantling this idea that smoking is cool. Remember those cinematic, sophisticated, and decadent smoking ads featuring people skiing or on yachts, flying in helicopters or watching Wimbledon? All that advertising is gone. Remember the Camel man? Gone.

In this article we've looked at how smoking starts, and what factors tend to predispose a smoker-to-be to smoking. We've also seen that educating and discouraging teenagers directly not to smoke may be counterproductive. What may be more effective are (parents) referencing cool people who don셳 smoke to the youth. Another powerful tool is to turn bad habits into good habits. If you take something away from someone that gives them a buzz, you need to replace it with something else.

Exercise is an excellent option. As the ex-smoker becomes more involved in the process of improving the health and strength of the body, the more smoking becomes counterproductive and importantly, counterintuitive. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the following psychology must be ingrained in the ex-smoker-to-be's psyche: Identity must be defined as "I am not a smoker" instead of "I am a smoker trying to quit." Either you're a smoker or you're not. Believing you're a non-smoker helps you to be one over the long haul. Good luck.

Information provided in Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point": How little things can make a big difference.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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