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Smokers Often Quit for Social Reasons

Study Suggests Efforts to Quit Smoking May Be Contagious

Smoking Affects Social Status continued...

Not surprisingly, the closer the relationship between contacts, the greater the influence on smoking. When a spouse quit smoking, the other spouse's probability of continuing to smoke decreased by 67%. When a sibling, friend, or close co-worker quit, the chances that a participant would remain a smoker decreased by 25%, 36%, and 34%, respectively.

When the researchers analyzed social networks as a whole, they found that entire groups of people who might not even know each other all quit smoking in a relatively short time.

These networks also become increasingly more polarized with respect to smoking over time.

"If you look back at 1971, smokers and nonsmokers alike were at the centers of social networks," Fowler notes.

But during the '80s and '90s, smoking and smokers became increasingly marginalized, relegating them to what Fowler calls the "periphery of the social network."

"Contrary to what we might have thought in high school, smoking has become a supremely bad strategy for getting popular."

Quitting Is Contagious

The findings document a major social shift in how smoking is perceived and the impact of that shift, Steven Schroeder, MD, tells WebMD.

Schroeder runs the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

The change is even more dramatic considering the efforts by tobacco companies to promote smoking, he says.

"They have spent billions to get us to smoke or smoke more, and yet we have seen this amazing social change in just a few decades," he says.

But in an editorial accompanying the study, Schroeder notes that the change has not come equally to all, with educationally and economically disadvantaged Americans continuing to smoke in high numbers.

And he notes that smoking rates are highest among the members of society who are most disadvantaged -- people who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse.

"Further stigmatizing these people is not a compassionate act," Schroeder says. "We have to figure out how to love the smoker and hate the smoking."

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