Research leaves smoking stereotypes up in smoke

A first-of-its-kind national study from The Australian National University (ANU) has debunked common myths about who smokes in Australia and will help provide better support and potentially life-saving interventions for 2.5 million daily smokers.

The study, the first national population profile of people who smoke, counters widespread perceptions that smokers are largely uneducated, unemployed and suffer poor mental health. Instead, the findings make clear smoking affects the whole community.

Study senior author Professor Emily Banks said the findings will help break down stigma surrounding people who smoke as well as ensure that support is better targeted to the people who need them.

“Smoking remains Australia’s leading cause of premature death and disability, so it’s vital that we better understand who smokes and the reasons why they do,” Professor Banks said.

“People who smoke are often stigmatised and stereotyped as uneducated, unemployed and mentally ill.”

Lead author, ANU medical student Ms Jessica Aw said: “We analysed nationally representative data on smoking in Australia to get a better understanding of who smokes in our population.

“We found that around 2.5 million people smoke daily in Australia; around 60 per cent of people who smoke are men, 65 per cent live in major cities, and 92 per cent are non-Indigenous.

“In addition, 69 per cent have completed year 12, 69 per cent of those of working age are in paid employment and 73 per cent had good mental health.

“Although smoking is more common in people who are experiencing structural disadvantage – like people in more remote areas, Indigenous peoples, those with less education and those living in poverty – most people who smoke are educated, employed and in good mental health, similar to the total population of Australia.”

Professor Banks said that people who smoke need to be supported and empowered to quit.

“They need to ‘see themselves’ in material and campaigns tackling tobacco,” Professor Banks said.  “These findings should reduce unfair stigma around smoking and support evidence-based tobacco control measures.”

Study co-author Associate Professor Raglan Maddox said: “Effective, relevant communications reflect the lives of people who smoke.

“We need both broad messages and specific approaches for priority populations, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while taking care not to frame it as an issue unique to one particular group.”

Ms Aw, said:  “This is a world first, as previous studies have focused on comparing people who smoke with those who don’t, but have never looked at the population of people who smoke really are.

“No other study nationally or internationally has sought to comprehensively understand this. Results from previous studies have described associations with smoking such as people who smoke are more likely to be living rurally, unemployed, uneducated, in poor mental health which can contribute to stigma.

“We now know the whole population of people who smoke are similar to the whole Australian population.”

The findings are published in the Medical Journal of Australia.