Australian smokers feel marginalised

2 June 2016

I witnessed a lot of cases of people being abused for breathing smoke on someone else by accident, or if wind picked up and their smoke travelled.

A 10-year anthropological study into smoking in Australia has found that strict legislation has led to many smokers feeling marginalised from society.

Researcher Associate Professor Simone Dennis of The Australian National University (ANU) School of Archaeology and Anthropology, said that legislation such as plain packaging and designated smoke-free zones served to "de-normalise" smoking, which can lead to smokers being treated as community outsiders.

"You de-normalise smoking by making it appear very dangerous," Associate Professor Dennis said.

"I witnessed a lot of cases of people being abused for breathing smoke on someone else by accident, or if wind picked up and their smoke travelled."

The research findings have been published in a book, Smokefree, which documents the changing experience of smokers as Australia introduced world leading anti-tobacco laws.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014-15 National Health Survey revealed 14.5 per cent of adults were daily smokers, down from 16 per cent in 2011-12 when plain packaging legislation was brought in.

Associate Professor Dennis found that those who continued to smoke devised a range of methods for negating health messages, particularly with the smoking related health images.

"People would often not look at it, or put stickers over the top of it so they wouldn't have to deal with it," she said.

"When people received a packet that in some way upset them, they would ask for it to be swapped. So if blokes got the packet about pregnancy and smoking harming unborn babies, they were quite comfortable with those."

Associate Professor Dennis also found that it was common for people to distort the meaning of the health messages being communicated.

"It's not as straight forward as telling people smoking is dangerous and once they have that information they will stop. People are creative in developing meaning from messages," she said.

"I spoke to a group of pregnant 16 year old girls who were smoking to reduce the birthweight of their baby.

"They were scared because they were small. The worst thing that could happen to them was to have an enormous baby. They had read on packets that smoking can reduce the birth weight of your baby, which is obviously not how the public health message is intended to be taken."

Associate Professor Dennis took a neutral stance on the issue of smoking, but said she received a large volume of complaints from people unhappy with her approach.

"I'm not trying to encourage people to smoke or get them to stop. I'm just trying to understand their experience," she said.

Associate Professor Dennis' book, Smokefree, was launched this week and is available on the website of publishers Bloomsbury.