Why People Smoke

Carl C. Seltzer has been engaged in research in physical anthropology at Harvard since 1937, and a survey which he made of the smoking habits of the class of 1946 led to some of the findings in this present article. At present, Dr. Seltzer is Research Fellow in Physical Anthropology at the Peabody Museum and Research Associate in the Adolescent Division of the Children's Hospital
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Most people are unaware of how widespread smoking is and of the pattern it takes among the American people. From the most comprehensive survey of the U.S. Public Health Service, it is estimated that of the approximately 50 million men in our civilian population, about 39 million, or 78 percent, have a history of tobacco use. While the percentage of men smokers has in recent years been relatively stable, the proportion of women smokers has been showing a steady increase.

From 1880 to 1955 the annual total consumption of tobacco per person over fourteen years of age more than doubled, from 5.41 pounds a year to 11.92 pounds, but during the same period cigarette consumption multiplied about 204 times, from .047 to 9.57 pounds per person.

Although there is some variation in the different studies on when North Americans begin to smoke, a consensus of the findings indicates that by age thirteen about one out of six youngsters has begun to experiment with smoking, by fourteen one out of four, and by eighteen virtually one out of two has the smoking habit. Girls do not lag far behind boys in early adoption of smoking, but the boys appear to be consistently heavier smokers. Adolescent smoking is by no means a recent phenomenon, yet the last decade has seen a highly accelerated shift to an earlier age for beginning smoking, and young teen-agers characteristically smoke cigarettes only.

A great many investigators have discussed the reasons for starting to smoke. However, no common agreement has been reached. For the most part, the various explanations fall into the psychological realm. They range from such motivating factors as the desire to appear more grown-up or the wish for adult status, adolescent rebelliousness, striving for proper group status, reduction of tension, novel experience, curiosity, peer orientation, personality inferiority, imitative-sociability element, all the way to the suggestion of a "phallic significance of the cigarette, cigar, and pipe."

What is striking in the bulk of the material on smoking motivation is the emergence of a profile of the nonsmoker. Some characteristics of the nonsmoker crystallized more definitively from these studies than those of the smoker, the original subject of investigation. This is not to say that the nonsmokers share a single personality type or display an exclusive set of identifying characteristics. Rather, the profile is to be viewed as a group tendency on the part of the nonsmokers to exhibit particular traits more frequently.

The consensus of various studies indicates the nonsmoker to be of middle-class origin rather than in either the upper or lower classes, reflecting the mark of middle-class respectability and the persistence of the Puritanical trait. Seemingly, he considers smoking one of the small vices to which the flesh is heir, is often pious and a devout churchgoer, and is frequently an abstainer from alcohol. While the nonsmoker tends to be dependable, purposeful, hard-working, stable in marriage, and quietly progressive in general outlook, he is less gregarious and sociable than the smoker. He is described as being more often inner-directed or an introvert, and is, accordingly, immoderately preoccupied with his own thought processes and other internal states. More rigid in personality than the smoker, the nonsmoker is attracted to scientific rather than business studies, and during his adolescence he tends to be more seriously absorbed in his studies and academic achievements.

We have already noted that smokers are differentiated in our population with respect to some aspects of age and sex. But in addition to these factors, smokers are differentiated from nonsmokers in other criteria. Smokers as a group are more frequent among urban dwellers than in rural farm populations, and considerably more prevalent among the lower and upper social classes than in the middle classes. Smokers marry more often, display a tendency toward divorce and widowhood, move their residences more frequently, change their jobs more often, and are hospitalized more than nonsmokers.

Addiction to smoking is found to be consistently greater among men in military service than in civilian life, irrespective of peace or war, and greater in veterans than in nonveterans. Smokers participate more frequently and in more sports than do nonsmokers, and come from families in which there is a greater history of hypertension or coronary disease and in which the practice of smoking is more prevalent. In families in which both parents are smokers, the chance that their children will smoke is several times greater than in nonsmoking households.

With respect to occupation, smokers are proportionately more heavily represented in the mining, construction, manufacturing, and transportation industries, and in the fields of business contacts (promoters, salesmen, retail and wholesale dealers, and buyers). They also predominate among business executives of all ranks, cultural administrators (editors, educational administrators, museum curators), and in the entertainment and recreational services. Among farmers, engineers, surgeons, elementary and high school teachers, and clergymen there is a notably small proportion of smokers. It is interesting to note that, in consonance with the public image, pipe smokers are more frequently found among research scientists, cultural administrators, lawyers, college professors, and schoolteachers. Cigar smokers, on the other hand, are especially prevalent among business executives, bankers, editors, attorneys, and those in the technological field.

Notable distinctions between smokers and nonsmokers apparently exist in the realm of psychological and personality features. Several studies stress the greater degree of extroversion of the smokers. They are described as being more energetic, restless, and more externally oriented than the nonsmokers. Possessing more "neurotic" traits, smokers tend to show more signs of psychological tension and psychosomatic symptoms than do the nonsmokers. In the words of one researcher, "the group of smokers appears to contain more of the men who are energetic, searching for aims and purposes, verbal, and perhaps, although less stable, more interesting."

What is the significance of these findings? What are their wider implications? It is clear that smokers as a group do differ from nonsmokers as a group in a variety of characteristics. Yet, in no instance are these differential features found to be present exclusively in one group and completely absent in the other. There is no manifestation of a clear-cut smoker's personality. That this is so is not surprising. With about sixty million or more adults smoking in one form or another, it would strain credulity to expect that such a large segment of the total population, with its infinite varieties of temperament, would share in common a single personality type. Ultimately, the answer may lie in the existence of a number of more or less discrete types.

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