Why you should care
It’s not a functioning democracy if one group votes less than half as often as everyone else.
Life for smokers is tough. There’s the exorbitant cost of cigarettes, the dirty looks, the standing outside in the cold. There’s also lung cancer. All that aside, smokers are just like everyone else, right? Wrong. No, the difference doesn’t come down to life and death — just to the ability of our democracy to function.
According to a new study in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, which receives funding from the public and private sectors, as well as the government:
less likely to vote than nonsmokers.
The study, which took data from more than 11,000 people in Colorado, is the first to find a relationship between behavioral health risks, like smoking or obesity, and political participation, says Karen Albright, an associate professor of community and behavior health at the University of Colorado Denver.
Albright and her team analyzed survey data from the Colorado Tobacco Attitudes and Behaviors Study, which was conducted after the 2004 national election. (Albright says they are currently going through data for the 2012 national election and have found similar results.) The researchers controlled for other factors that might skew the relationship, like socio-economic status; for instance, people with less money are far more likely to smoke and are also less likely to vote. An intriguing point about the 2004 election that you’d think could have skewed results: There was a ballot measure that would increase a tobacco tax. But even with a financial incentive to get smokers out to the polls, they still showed up far less than their nonsmoking peers.
So what’s going on here? It might go back to all those dirty looks. While some people may respond to stigmatization by kicking the habit, others may respond by shutting down and isolating themselves. Previous studies have shown that smokers are less engaged in the community and generally have less of a social life. Those feelings of alienation may extend to the voting booth, suggests Albright. “It could be that smokers view the government as the oppressor.”
There are definitely professionals doing outreach and trying to get smokers to quit without making them feel like shit about themselves, but the judgment lever in the U.S. is usually ramped up to 11. And that might be the key to making smokers vote: Drop the moralistic trip and make them feel included. What doesn’t work is, say, hiring practices that reject candidates who smoke. “It’s workplace discrimination,” says Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University.
To be sure, the study has its limitations. For one, it’s not nationwide — some states may have different results. While results from the 2012 election may give further weight to the smokers-don’t-vote trend, this study is not longitudinal, and thus doesn’t explore whether rates have changed over time.
Regardless, the results could be a clarion call for policymakers and medical professionals to change how they treat smokers. That doesn’t mean we should do away with tobacco taxes or give smokers a high-five every time they light up. But, maybe the next time you’re tempted to freak out at the dude blowing smoke in your direction, stop — and think about the future of the country. And maybe let the smoker sit at your lunch table.