Culture and Smoking: Do Cultural Norms Impact Smoking Rates?

Cultures around the world differ substantially in their views on smoking. In cultures like the U.S., there is a strong anti-smoking attitude that helps to discourage young people from picking up the habit, but around the world, views can vary considerably.

We’ve known about the risks of smoking for a long time now. From the Surgeon General’s seminal 1964 report, health groups, doctors and ordinary citizens around the world have understood that smoking is a cause of lung cancer and a multitude of other health issues. In the U.S. and many places around the world, this knowledge has shaped the relationship between culture and smoking, and made smoking something that’s broadly discouraged in society. While most countries take some anti-smoking actions at the governmental level, though, there are many cultures around the world where smoking is almost expected, especially if you happen to be male.

Smoking Rates by Country: Who Smokes the Most and Who Smokes the Least?

The first thing to consider with regard to the relationship between culture and smoking are the smoking rates around the world. As you may expect, the cultural differences existing in different parts of the world translates into vastly disparate smoking rates. In 2015, 76.2 % of Indonesian men smoked, in comparison to just 8.9 % in Ethiopia. These are the highest and lowest smoking rates among men in the world, respectively, but it shows that cultural variation in smoking rates is substantial.

In general, countries in Asia have the highest smoking rates, with fewer smokers in the Americas (particularly North America) and Western Europe. For example, 47.6 % of men in China smoke, in comparison to 19.5 % in the U.S. and 19.9 % in the U.K.. Cultural influences on smoking also show themselves through differences in smoking rates between genders. For instance, in China, only 1.8 % of women were smokers in 2015, compared to 15 % of U.S. women and 18.4 % of U.K. women.

Smoking and Culture: The Role of Religion

One of the most obvious causes of the link between smoking and culture is religion. Most religions – including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism – take an anti-smoking stance, even though the holy books were typically written before smoking became an issue. This goes even further, with people who are involved in religious activities tend to have lower smoking rates than people who aren’t involved, even among believers.

There are exceptions to this, though, with Native American beliefs being one well-known example. Among Native Americans, tobacco is used for spiritual purposes and even for healing, so the cultural attitude to smoking differs substantially. Native Americans don’t generally condone habitual, everyday use of tobacco, though.

Gender, Smoking and Culture: The Biggest Cultural Divide

Although this was touched on earlier, one of the biggest issues in the link between smoking and culture is gender. In general, males are more likely to smoke than females in many cultures, generally in Africa, Southeast Asia, the western Pacific and the eastern Mediterranean. Often, smoking is seen as a “manly” activity and inappropriate for women. In Europe and the Americas, this cultural expectation isn’t present, though it undoubtedly was in the past.

Other Cultural Norms and Smoking

Although religious aspects of culture and gender attitudes are two of the most important factors in the relationship between culture and smoking, other cultural norms can play a role too. For instance, in African-American communities, there is a strong cultural norm in opposition to youth smoking, and youth smoking is correspondingly lower in these communities. For example, studies have found that African-American households are more likely than white households to set explicit rules about smoking and to discuss these rules with children. Additionally, African-American children living in African-American communities have lower smoking rates than those living in white communities, further cementing the role of culture.

Can We Change Smoking-Related Cultural Norms?

The relationship between smoking and culture suggests that changing cultural norms could help us make strides in the fight against tobacco, but changing attitudes isn’t easy. While positive images of smoking in the media and advertising campaigns can create a pro-tobacco norm, evidence suggests that instituting anti-smoking policies – for example, clean air laws and bans on tobacco advertising – can help to create an anti-smoking norm and reduce smoking rates. Educational campaigns about the risks of smoking can also have this impact.

Resisting Cultural Norms and Staying Smoke-Free

Whether you’re living in a culture with more pro-smoking attitudes or are planning to travel to a country like Indonesia where smoking is almost expected (if you’re male, that is), being able to resist cultural pressures is crucial. This isn’t easy to do, especially if it’s the culture you’ve grown up in, but it’s important to remember that choosing to smoke opens yourself up to a multitude of health risks, not to mention the very real possibility of developing a lifelong addiction.

It isn’t always easy to say “no,” but it can make the difference between a long, healthy life and a stunted, smoke-filled one.