Monday, July 30, 2007

New Gallup Poll Reveals that Nearly Half of Smokers Feel Discriminated Against As a Result of Smoking Restrictions

A new Gallup survey released last week reveals that nearly half of smokers (47%) feel unjustly discriminated against as a result of public smoking restrictions. This percentage is up from 32% in 2001, six years ago. The majority of Americans (58%) continue to feel sympathetic toward smokers, which represents no change from 2001.

According to the Gallup press release: "Americans are not blind to the difficulties faced by people who smoke; most say they are sympathetic toward smokers because they understand it is hard to quit even if someone wants to try. However, as the percentage of Americans willing to ban smoking in various public places continues to creep up, close to half of smokers now say they feel unjustly discriminated against by society."

Another important result of the survey: the percentage of Americans who believe secondhand smoke is very harmful (56%) was no higher in 2007 than a decade earlier - in 1997 - when that percentage was 55%.

The Rest of the Story

These results are of particular interest to me because they show that the feelings of many of the smokers who read and comment on this blog are not extreme views, but represent the attitude of about half of all smokers nationwide. I have been roundly criticized by my colleagues for allowing these commenters to express their opinions and have been even more harshly criticized for engaging in a dialogue with these readers, who many of my colleagues have called tobacco moles or angry and deluded. However, these results demonstrate that the views expressed on this blog are not atypical of how smokers in general feel and that these attitudes represent a reality that public health and tobacco control practitioners are going to have to acknowledge and address.

These results also show that anti-smoking groups are quickly stepping out of line from where the public stands in terms of its attitudes towards smokers. The majority of people remain sympathetic towards smokers, and this percentage has not been declining over the past decade. In fact, it actually increased from 53% in 1997 to 58% in 2007.

Why are smokers increasingly feeling discriminated against? The answer is evident if you scroll through the headlines of this blog. The anti-smoking movement is making smokers feel this way by pursuing increasingly discriminatory, invasive, unfair, and unjustified policies.

I believe that the promotion of policies that discriminate against smokers in employment (i.e., refusing to hire smokers or firing existing smokers), treat smokers as child abusers, punish smokers for exposing their children to small increases in health risks, and ban smoking beyond the places necessary to protect the health of nonsmokers are all contributing to the increasing perception among smokers that they are being unfairly targeted and discriminated against.

It should not come as a surprise to tobacco control advocates that discrimination against smokers is resulting in an increased perception of discrimination. It should.

Unfortunately, these numbers are likely to continue to increase, as smoker-free hiring policies, along with draconian bans on smoking in nearly all outdoors areas, are just getting off the ground and are starting to proliferate rapidly.

More importantly, not a single tobacco control organization in this country has been willing to publicly speak out against these discriminatory employment policies. Short of that, the proliferation of this discrimination is not going to stop. As long as businesses perceive that they are acting in the best interests of the public's health as perceived by anti-smoking groups, they will continue to adopt these policies.

The same is true of smoking bans that overstep the need to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure. As more and more bans on smoking outdoors are enacted, especially in places where nonsmokers can easily avoid exposure, smokers will continue to feel discriminated against.

Another important finding of this poll is that despite anti-smoking groups' gross exaggerations of the acute cardiovascular health effects of secondhand smoke over the past six years, the proportion of people who believe that secondhand smoke is very harmful has not increased. This suggests that the anti-smoking groups' strategy of trying to increase the public's appreciation of the hazards of secondhand smoke by exaggerating their messages and creating the appearance of a more serious, more ominous, and more immediate threat to the heart than actually exists based on the scientific evidence is backfiring.

Apparently, the "30 minutes of exposure causes heart disease" and "there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke" messages are not working to give the public a greater appreciation of the severity of the hazards of tobacco smoke exposure. If anything, these messages may have ended up being counter-productive, as the past years have seen a plateau in what was previously a rapidly increasing appreciation of the severity of secondhand smoke's hazards.

The proportion of adults who believe secondhand smoke is very harmful increased steadily from 36% in 1994 to 48% in 1996 to 55% in 1997. But it has gotten no higher in the past 10 years.

Even though anti-smoking groups do not seem to care about the scientific inaccuracy of their public messages, they may wish to reconsider their strategy in light of this evidence that the approach is not working.

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