Why the excessive highlighting of health problems aren’t enough to eliminate cigarettes: A sociological look into cigarette’s part 1

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, cigarette smoking was a cheap and quick luxury that combated the stress of everyday life. The idea that it was in fact a very dangerous substance containing an addictive substance of nicotine and tar that could serious to serious health problems was not an issue back in those days. However, thanks to advancements in technology and medicine we now know the dangers and life threatening illnesses that may lead from it. Due to this there has been (as expected) a huge decline in the number of smokers which is still going down today. The dangers of smoking and policies brought in by government (such as the smoking in work spaces in 2007 and laws which highlight the dangers of smoking, such as TV and film advertisements and health warnings on packaging) have played a massive role in this decline. However, the social impacts of smoking and the stigma that is now attached to this act as a result have not been highlighted into society, this could be the killer blow in stopping smoking altogether similar to chewing Tabaco, in which Houston (1986) points out that Tabaco became socially unacceptable as a result of spitting being considered as “uncouth”.  As a result, smoking is likely to have the same manner, especially because of the high levels of butts that are littered around every street you walk on!

As mentioned before, Smoking is a simple and easy substance that is addictive and has symbolic meanings which has enhanced its popularity more so than Tobacco. This symbolic meaning can vary depending on the context and the situation. Teenagers smoking in order to show their independence against their parents, similar to getting a tattoo, is an example of such symbolism. But yet in another context, smoking can be seen as a “capper” to a great evening, a way to top of a great evening such as a meal or as seen in many television shows and films, smoking cigarettes after having sex. The symbolic meaning in these acts however, come from smoking with other people in the room, giving a symbol of pleasure or agreement to others without actually saying it. It is examples like these that have given cigarettes a much higher profile than other forms of smoking.

images of cig for article

So why is the discipline of sociology looking at cigarettes important today?

Despite the huge decline in cigarette smokers over the decades (from 51% in 1974 to 17% in 2016 according to the NOS), there is arguably still more that can be done in order to reduce numbers further as well as being able to explain why the percentage of smokers is the number it is. As well as this, sociology can also attempt to explain how the numbers have decreased from looking at how society’s attitudes towards cigarettes has shifted over the decades. In other words, we need to understand the social consequences smoking cigarettes has as well as the physiological dangers that are so heavily emphasized within smoke free campaigns and policies which try to highlight these. “Here, the case is advanced that social scientists, equipped with the theoretical and methodological resources to understand the social context and distribution of smoking are ideally placed to help advance a public health agenda.” (Marron, 2016, P1-2).

When taking a look at smoking cigarettes from this angle, it opens a new perspective on smoking that is hidden behind the physiological dangers that are implemented when any talk about cigs are mentioned in a negative way.

When having a look at how cigs got to where they are today, the First World War and world of modernity and eventually post modernity seen today played a heavy part. The fast paced and often hectic world that people live in today as well as over a decade ago, made cigarettes a vital and almost routine way of “relaxing” during the rush of the last two centuries. The anxiety and morale of soldiers during the Great War was actually highly weighed upon cigarettes which were used to prevent hunger and to escape the horrors that occurred during that time, if only briefly. This use of cigarettes are used similarly today (although nowhere near on the scale of the Great War), such as trying to fit in to a new group or social situation which can cause anxiety. These types of uses for cigarettes were very much a way of escapism and self-control instead of a luxury which was its sole purpose when being brought into production. Although these acts of using cigarettes as a coping mechanism are still seen today, it is not as well regarded as a way of coping with troubles as it was in the past. This is especially the case when comparing social class. Working class are “stereotypically” (I use this heavily!) more prone to smoking than other higher classes due to their lack of education and mentality of just getting through the day after being exploited through the capitalist system. And by smoking cigarettes this is again a coping mechanism of this, not only to destress, but to also knock off a couple of minutes in the day and to make the day go that bit quicker. It is these actions and exploitation of the working class that I believe Marron is talking about when he mentions the following. “Habit exists as a property of relationships, contexts and things rather than individuals” (Marron, 2016, P6). By this he means that the way in which society has shaped our life, it has basically led us to a path that means smoking at some point is of a much higher chance because of the social situation you’re in. For example, being in a dead end job with no future in sight means that you’re more likely to smoke as it gives you something to look forward to whilst at work and makes you just about bare work without going insane or going on an all-out revolution to overthrow the capitalist society in which we find ourselves arguably being massively exploited. (Bit over the top I admit, but it gives you an insight into my ideology I suppose!).

When looking further at cigarettes from a sociological point of view it does have similar characteristics to that of Becker’s work in marijuana use. Becker argued that the act of smoking marijuana had to be learned in order to enjoy effects. He argued that there were three key stages in order to “become” a user. First, smoking it in a way that will produce real effects, learning to recognise the effects and connect with those effects and lastly learning to enjoy those effects that have been recognised. This is similar to cigarettes and other forms of smoking, especially when those that are trying it for the first time, end up having a coughing fit as they don’t know how to enjoy or use the cigarette properly yet.

However, expanding on this point, when a smoker then knows how to embrace smoking and applies the three steps that Becker has mentioned, they are able to enjoy and use it regularly and become a member of being a “smoker” which involves smoking becoming the idea that Marron sees as a habit. The habit of smoking becomes a semi-conscious act where they smoke like it is “second nature” to them. Similar to Garfinkel (1967) in his idea of membership and competence, they now identify themselves as being a part of something (in this case a smoker) because they have learnt and enabled the act to be successfully done without having to concentrate fully on that task. An example of Garfinkel’s idea was that of learning to drive. When you drive and see yourself as a “driver”, you can recall every action you do without focusing on it. Marron describes it quite well and can be applied to driving and smoking “Embedded in daily routine, the habit may be unquestioned; yet this does not mean that individuals are unthinking. On the contrary, individuals can be called upon to give a conscious account of what they are doing” (Marron, 2016, P7). When applying it to smoking, without even thinking, they can light a cigarette and smoke it without having to think about how they correctly perform the task, in other words, similar to driving, they just do it.

So what does this have to do with stopping people to smoke? Well, by seeing cigs in this perspective it gives us an idea into how easy and quick the act of smoking is and that in order to stop people smoking in the future, it may be wise at looking at ways to break the cycle. People aren’t stupid, they obviously know that smoking is bad for your health but they do it anyway, why? Because it is an addictive (physiological) substance as well as a social habit, for example, having one before work or after a meal. How can breaking the cycle be done, I’m not entirely sure. But seeing it from this direction gives us a starting point in potentially reducing the numbers further.

I hope to release part 2 by next week so I’m looking forward to sharing that with you. It will look at class and cigarettes further and also a brief look into how e-cigs, may not be any different to normal cigs in a social perspective.



Houston. C (1986) The sociology of cigarette smoking. Houston, C. (1986). CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal De L’Association Medicale Canadienne, 134(8), 878-9.

Marron. D (2016). “Smoke gets in your eyes: What is sociological about cigarettes?” Sociological review. SAGE publications. file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/1467-954x%252E12404%20(1).pdf (Date accessed 8th July 2017)

Please have a read of both of these articles especially Marron’s which gives a much more deatield piece of writing into the Triad of smoking, the historical, structural and individual aspects of cigarette smoking in society.




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