People smoke more when told it will kill them

Source: Mindsay Mohan (flickr)

I’m just putting this out there, but I really hate smokers. When you’re having a fun time skipping down the street or trying to chat up a young lass out in the beer garden, there are few thing things more annoying than having some yellow-toothed, wheezing misanthrope come past blowing smoke in your face. It ruins the ambiance of hopscotch and really interferes with your pitching of woo. To quote Rod and Todd Flanders, “smokers are jokers, smokers are jokers!”

So why do so many people still continue to smoke even now that we know about the extensive negative health impacts? Whilst doing some research for a uni assignment a while ago I came across one possible explanation. A group of scientists found that when some smokers are shown messages such as “Smokers die earlier” and “Smoking leads to deadly lung cancer” they actually form more positive views about smoking and are therefore more likely to continue their habit.

Now most of us would consider this quite strange, why would a sane, rational person do something that they know is likely to kill them? It can all be explained by a concept known as terror management theory and its effects on ones’ sense of self esteem.

The theory says that all humans recognise that one day we will die and no longer exist, which causes us anxiety. To avoid thinking about death we concentrate on work (“cancer-shmancer, I’m trying to land the Henderson account!”) or other life tasks (“can’t stop now, I have to feed the alpacas”). However we still feel the anxiety on a subconscious level. To reduce this subconscious anxiety, we mentally reinforce our faith in our worldview and our belief that we are a valuable member of our society, thus boosting our self esteem.

You may think that these movie stars who smoke look glamourous. Well, they're also dead. Source: Wikimedia

So how does smoking come into this? The messages that are printed on cigarette packets about the dangers of smoking remind people about their mortality, causing an increase in this subconscious anxiety. To reduce this, people take action to boost their self esteem. If the smoker believes that smoking boosts their self image (makes them look trendier to others, etc) then they will want to smoke more, as this boosts their self-esteem, reducing their anxiety.

So some health messages may actually reinforce the smoking behaviour instead of discouraging it as intended. For people whose self esteem is dependent on their smoking, messages unrelated to death, such as “smoking brings you and the people around you severe damage” and “Smoking makes you unattractive”, are more effective at discouraging them from smoking.

Unfortunately, the traditional death related warnings are more effective for people whose self esteem is based on things other than smoking. So the right strategy involves using both types of messages and hoping that at least one message will have the desired effect and discourage each and every person to stop smoking. Hopefully then they might decide to flush their sin sticks straight to hell.

This message should work...unless you're a woman I guess. Source: Wikimedia


Hansen, J., Winzeler, S. & Topolinski, S. (2010). When the death makes you smoke: A terror management on the effectiveness of cigarette on-pack warnings. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 46, 226-228. doi10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.007

The Simpsons, Season 13, Episode 7: “Brawl in the Family”.


One thought on “People smoke more when told it will kill them

  1. Australia is so antismoking!!! But wondering how much tax they get from cigarettes and how much smokers “cripple” the health system. Saying that, the images on the cigarette packets were a complete waste of time! And wondering whether the plain packaging will make any difference?.

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