SMOKERS are being stigmatised and increasingly viewed as “outsiders” who damage public health, according to a report from the University of York.
Professor Hilary Graham, author of Smoking, Stigma And Social Class, says that poorer communities in particular, where smokers are traditionally found in higher numbers, are increasingly subject to public vilification because of the way smoking has been portrayed in health campaigns over the years.
She has now called for a rethink on how smoking is portrayed and for the focus to be on education rather than vilification.
Professor Graham said: “It is generally accepted that tobacco control policies can use stigma if they achieve their objective of protecting people’s health.
“But there is evidence that these policies have also served to intensify public vilification of disadvantaged groups where smoking rates tend to be highest.”
She suggests that the public now relates smokers to characters such as Frank Gallagher, from the popular television series Shameless, who is portrayed as an idle, working class scruff, famous for his trademark cigarette, grubby clothes and lank hair.
“Research suggests that smoking has become shorthand for class-related disadvantage.
“In Australia, the public and the media associate smoking with unemployment, low economic status and low educational achievement; whilst a Canadian study suggested that smokers and non-smokers alike saw smokers as ‘dirty’, ‘inconsiderate’ and ‘weak-willed’.”
Professor Graham said more thought must be given to the consequences of raising the level of stigma attached to smoking.
She said: “Conveying the message that smokers are outsiders who threaten public health will do little to reduce class prejudice and promote social cohesiveness.”
‘People look down on us’
LAURA Woodley, 22, from York, has been smoking since the age of 14, a habit she started after growing up in a pub.
She agreed that smoking came with its health risks, but said vilification was not the way to make people give up.
“You do get filthy looks,” she said.
“Women with prams will look at you, but it’s not like I’m blowing smoke in their kid’s faces.
“There’s talk of them bringing bans in to pub beer gardens now and that’s going too far.
“But the bans are educational in a way.
“The Government has a responsibility to make smoking look bad, but at the same time smoking is a personal choice and I think they have gone as far as they need to go with it. The fact that it’s bad for you is no secret.
“People look down on smokers and I think it’s this thing about them affecting other’s health – however negligible that risk might be.”