Quitting smoking – contagious and good for your social life?

Two interesting and related epidemiological studies on smoking were published last week.

The first, led by Nicholas Christakis of the Harvard Medical school, looked at patterns in quitting behaviour, and found that smoking cessation tends to occur in network clusters. Those within social networks who continue to smoke are, say the researchers, increasingly pushed to the periphery. The moral of the tale is that the most effective forms of anti-smoking public health campaigns will focus on targeting groups rather than individuals.

“We’ve found that when you analyze large social networks, entire pockets of people who might not know each other all quit smoking at once,” says Christakis. “So if there’s a change in the zeitgeist of this social network, like a cultural shift, a whole group of people who are connected but who might not know each other all quit together.”

The second study also looks at smoking in its social context. James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego, together with Christakis at Harvard, says that smoking is bad not only for physical well-being but also for social health. That is, ostracising smokers restricts the scope of their social networks.

“In the early 1970s,” says Fowler, “it was completely irrelevant if you smoked. You could be central in your circle and be connected to lots of other people who were similarly central. You could be popular, in other words. By the 2000s, it had become highly relevant: If you smoked, you would, in some sense, be shunned.”

Does this tell the whole story? Despite the ubiquitous anti-smoking propaganda of the noughties, the fact is that smoking remains a very common activity. There is a separation of smoking and non-smoking communities, but non-smokers who find themselves associating exclusively with other non-smokers should not assume that smokers are socially isolated creatures. That simply isn’t the case, from what I can see. This is not about dwindling bands of puffers huddled outside pubs; I suspect that the communities concerned are larger and more cohesive than that.