Anti-smoking ad campaigns that stigmatize smokers may actually have the opposite effect, prompting some people to become defensive and light up even more, according to a new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine. The findings reveal the potential for negative stereotypes to backfire, especially when it comes to public health campaigns.
The researchers found that while stigmatizing smoking does work on some people, the tactic may be damaging to others, especially for those who are more vulnerable with fewer coping resources. In these cases, the stigma leads to an even lower drop in self-esteem, making it harder for them to quit.
The authors suggest that health policies may want to focus instead on more positive strategies, reinforcing the benefits of giving up smoking rather than reiterating negative stereotypes.
“Consequences of stigmatizing stereotypes ranged from increased intentions to quit smoking to increased stress to greater resistance to quitting smoking,” said Dr. Rebecca Evans-Polce, postdoctoral fellow at the Methodology Center and the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center of Pennsylvania State.
For the study, Evans-Polce and colleagues from the U.K., Brazil and Germany conducted a review of almost 600 articles relating to smoking self-stigma. While the evidence shows that stigmatizing smoking may prompt some individuals to quit, the authors say that health policies could instead focus on more positive strategies.
“The stereotypes that smokers deal with are almost universally negative,” said Dr. Sara Evans-Lacko, research fellow at London School of Economics and Political Science.
For example, one study showed that 30 to 40 percent of smokers felt high levels of family disapproval and social unacceptability and 27 percent felt they were treated differently. Another study found that 39 percent of smokers believed that people thought less of them.
“The stigma for parents who smoke is particularly strong,” added Evans-Lacko.
In multiple studies, smokers used words such as “leper,” “outcast,” “bad person,” “low-life,” and “pathetic” to describe their own behavior.
The stigma surrounding smokers may lead to a variety of negative outcomes, including relapses, increased resistance to quitting, self-induced social isolation, and higher stress levels.
Other studies highlighted gender biases in smoking, showing that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who smoked were seen as “shameful” and “tainted” while male smokers from the same culture were viewed as “macho.” Another study showed that females in general regret smoking more than men do.
Evans-Lacko said the findings reveal that vulnerable groups with fewer coping skills benefit more from ads that focus on the benefits of giving up rather than on the stigma of smoking.
“Future research is needed to understand what factors are related to how individuals respond to smoking stigma,” said Evans-Polce.
Source: Penn State