Perceived Discrimination, Stress, and Smoking

Smoking is a habit that can cause serious physical health problems, and people who smoke often find it very difficult to stop. Understanding the factors that contribute to smoking may help professionals design more effective smoking cessation programs. One of the factors that is believed to influence smoking rates is discrimination. Specifically, individuals who perceive they are mistreated or discriminated against tend to have higher rates of smoking than those who report little to no discrimination. Additionally, people of lower socioeconomic status have higher rates of smoking than more affluent individuals. Taken together, these data raise questions about the relationship between discrimination, stressful life conditions, and smoking among minority populations.

Jason Q. Purnell, Ph.D. of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, sought to answer these questions in a recent study. Purnell analyzed data from a larger behavioral study conducted between 2004 and 2008. He examined the data for incidents of discrimination, environments in which the discrimination took place, psychological stress, and rates of smoking among the participants. Purnell found that individuals who believed they were being discriminated against had higher rates of smoking than those who did not, regardless of their ethnicity.

The results of the study demonstrated that the environment in which discrimination occurs, in particular workplace environments or health-care settings, had different effects on smoking. People who felt discriminated against in the workplace were more likely to be smokers than those who experienced health-care discrimination. Purnell also found that the stress that resulted from perceived discrimination increased the likelihood of smoking. This finding suggests that some individuals may use smoking as a way to relieve the psychological stress caused by perceived discrimination. He said the findings suggest that working with clients on alternative ways of coping with discrimination may be useful in counseling programs to help individuals quit smoking.

Purnell, J. Q., Peppone, L. J., Alcaraz, K., McQueen, A., Guido, J. J. (2012). Perceived discrimination, psychological distress, and current smoking status: Results from the behavioral risk factor surveillance system reactions to race module, 2004-2008. American Journal of Public Health 102.5, 844-851.

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  • Michelle

    June 14th, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    I wonder if the kids who start smoking while they are young would say that they feel discrimination and that is why they have started smoking, or if it is because of peer pressure. I remember being that age and not feeling a sense that I was being discriminated against, but I remember vividly being pressured into doing some things that I didn’t want to do. I can see how there are adults who might use this as a coping tool, but for kids I still think it is a lot to do with who else is doing it and what they feel that they are expected to do.

  • Ben

    June 18th, 2012 at 12:27 AM

    This is no different from abuse victims or those who have faced difficult situations turning to drugs to ‘help’ themselves..Similarity exists.Maybe we should try similar approaches to help?

  • antoine baker

    June 18th, 2012 at 5:00 AM

    I am a smoker, but I can’t say that it is because I feel discrminated against. I can say that I smole when I feel anxious, or stressed, or need to smoke after a big meal, but for me it has nothing to do with feeling like the world is against me. It’s a bad habit, one that I have tried over and over again to break but have never had very much luck with. I know that for me to be successful in stopping smoking I have to find a way to manage my stress in a way that does not involve lighting up a cigarette but so far I haven’t found anything that works for me like a cigarette does.

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