No Smoke Without Fire?

Image: graur codrin

With any mention of the name ‘Frank Gallagher’ in a tabloid newspaper, there is a strong chance that one or more of the descriptions ‘drunken’, ‘feckless’, ‘slob’ or ‘scrounger’ won’t be far away – along with a photo of the ‘Shameless’ TV character leering at the camera, a tower of ash teetering on the end of his ever-present cigarette.

Gallagher – lynchpin of the popular Channel 4 TV series – has long been the UK’s poster boy for socially unacceptable behaviour and neatly illustrates a connection between smoking and antisocial behaviour that is reinforced by UK tobacco control policies, according to an article in the current issue of the Journal of Social Policy.

‘Smoking, Stigma and Social Class’ by Hilary Graham of the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, warns that whilst public health policies have played a central role in protecting health by increasing public awareness of the risks of smoking, they have done this by increasing the social unacceptability of smoking and, by extension, smokers themselves. In 1950s Britain, smoking was considered an aspirational activity and was popular among men and women across all income groups. Since then attitudes have changed, with smoking rates having fallen fastest among higher income groups. Today, smoking is predominantly a habit of poorer groups.

Graham explained: “It is generally accepted that tobacco control policies can use stigma if they achieve their objective of protecting people’s health. But there is evidence that these policies have also served to intensify public vilification of disadvantaged groups where smoking rates tend to be highest. Research suggests that smoking has become shorthand for class-related disadvantage – in Australia the public and the media associate smoking with unemployment, low economic status and low educational achievement; whilst a Canadian study suggested that smokers and non-smokers alike saw smokers as ‘dirty’, ‘inconsiderate’ and ‘weak-willed’. It’s not hard to see why Frank Gallagher’s cigarette is such a potent symbol.”

“More thought must be given to the consequences of raising the level of stigma attached to smoking – conveying the message that smokers are outsiders who threaten public health will do little to reduce class prejudice and promote social cohesiveness.”

‘Smoking, Stigma and Social Class’ appears in the Journal of Social Policy, Volume. 41 Issue 1 (January 2012). To read the article free of charge visit Journal of Social Policy is published quarterly by Cambridge University Press for the Social Policy Association.

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Social Policy Association

The Social Policy Association promotes the study of social policy and advances the role of social policy research within policy making, practice and wider public debates. The majority of the Association’s members are teachers and researchers in social policy and applied social science within UK higher education, complemented by a significant and growing number of members from other European, Asian and Australasian countries. Individual members receive the Journal of Social Policy and Social Policy & Society free of charge.

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