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Up in Smoke: Do Smokers Think More about Death?

Up in Smoke: Do Smokers Think More about Death?I have a poster in my office from the 1950s. It’s yellowed with the passing of years, but it still makes me smile. A man is changing a tire in the snow and the situation isn’t going as planned. He has a  grimace on his face and tire chains are wrapped around his wrists like shackles. A woman is standing over him with a pack of cigarettes. The text reads:

“When tempers need to be controlled… Why be irritated? Light an Old Gold!”

Times certainly have changed. Societal views on cigarettes, and toward those who smoke them, have been flipped upside-down. Smokers are segregated. They must stand fifty feet away from shopping centers, hide in a bush when they see a child, douse themselves in perfume or cologne before leaving their homes.

Sarcasm aside, smoking isn’t popular anymore, nor is it attractive.

I came across a small article by Karen Schrock in Scientific American Mind entitled “How Smokers Think about Death”. What a headline that is!

Let me preface this by telling you I smoked cigarettes for over 10 years. I’m 27 now and I’m pretty sure I cannot tell you how I think about death. Actually, I cannot think of a single smoker whose claim to fame would be knowing more about death than the nonsmoker sitting beside them. Mortality isn’t really a casual lunch conversation.

The article asks the question: “Do graphic warning labels on cigarette packages really deter people from lighting up?” Schrock explains that, “In 2012 the U.S. will join dozens of nations around the world in labeling cigarette packages with large photographs of diseased organs, amputated limbs and other gruesome images. Previous research has borne out the idea that when people see images of cigarette-induced ailments, they are reminded of their own mortality.”

When I purchased cigarettes before I quit smoking, the images on them, certainly gruesome, would bother me for about five seconds. Give or take five more seconds. I just wanted a cigarette. But I also wanted to take a black marker to the package and scribble out the pictures. I was not reminded of my own mortality but was instead embarrassed.

The author explains that Jamie Arndt, a psychologist, “…had student smokers complete questionnaires designed to induce either thoughts of their own mortality or thoughts about failing an exam… the researchers offered the students a cigarette and measured every person’s smoking intensity — each puff’s volume, flow and duration.”

I kept reading, hopeful that I might learn something, anything at all at this point.

Schrock continues, “Students who did not smoke often indeed smoked with less passion after being reminded of their own mortality, as compared with the light smokers who read about failing an exam… the infrequent smokers may have been responding to thoughts of death by trying to reduce their own vulnerability… Students who were heavy smokers reacted to thoughts of death by taking even harder drags on their cigarettes.”

So what have we learned courtesy of a 284-word article in a consumer-friendly magazine?

That’s open to debate, much like the impact graphic images have on those who smoke. But it’s safe to say that those who smoke probably do not “think about death” in any fantastical or behavior-changing way.

In the end, whether a person smokes or not, we all question our mortality. That’s part of the human condition. And so are articles that try to figure the whole thing out — life, such as it is.


Schrock, K. (2010, September 28). How smokers think about death. Scientific American Mind. Retrieved from

Up in Smoke: Do Smokers Think More about Death?

NatalieJeanne Champagne

Natalie Jeanne Champagne is the author of The Third Sunrise: A Memoir of Madness. You can learn about Natalie and the book on her website at

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APA Reference
Champagne, N. (2018). Up in Smoke: Do Smokers Think More about Death?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Dec 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.