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Gone in a puff of smoke

By Simon Chapman - posted Thursday, 30 December 2004

You'd have to have been asleep in a cave on Mars for 40 years not to have heard that smoking is harmful to your health.

Indeed, as the tobacco industry likes to point out, nearly all smokers have "heard" this message.

But how many agree with it, or are able to list more than one or two items on the very long list of diseases that have now been connected with smoking? Depressingly few.


The idea that today's smokers are aware of the full magnitude of the risks they take has been repeatedly shown to be a fantasy. Most smokers have no idea what the probability of smoking killing them is, how these chances compare with other risks to their life, or how many Australians die each year from smoking-related diseases.

Also, how often have you heard smokers rationalise their smoking, with statements like, "I know it's bad but I play squash every Thursday night and get the tar out of my system."

New research just published in the international journal Preventive Medicine maps the extent to which Australian smokers cling to leaky life rafts like this.

The researchers, led by the NSW Cancer Council's Wendy Oakes, found there are three broad categories of excuses that remain disturbingly common among smokers today.

The first are "sceptic" beliefs. These are a set of beliefs that basically say, "I just don't believe it". For example, 14 per cent of smokers believe "lots of doctors smoke, so it cannot be all that harmful".

To the tobacco industry, a smoking doctor is invaluable reassurance fodder. But in fact, only 2 per cent of doctors smoke in Australia, the lowest rate in the community, with the possible exception of nuns and some religious groups that forbid smoking.


Moreover, nearly one in four smokers today believes that "smoking cannot be that bad for you because many people who smoke live long lives".

While a smoking Fidel Castro or old Uncle Barney who still smokes at 80, fuel this image, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The lowest rates of smoking in the community are found in the oldest age groups (11 per cent of men aged 60 or more smoke, compared with 37 per cent of 20 to 29-year-olds). This is caused by a combination of quitting and "attrition" an oblique way of saying that many smokers have died by then.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review  December 16, 2004.

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About the Author

Professor Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney and author of Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and Australia's Fight for Gun Control.

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