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To smoke or not to smoke?

Calculating the costs

Munich, 07/02/2010

As part of a project on “Theory and Empirics of Cigarette Consumption”, financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), LMU sociologists have been looking for answers to the question of why people start to smoke in general. “Most previous investigations have focused on the role of the social context”, says LMU sociologist Thomas Wimmer. “And, in a nutshell, the results of these studies merely provide us with the following explanation: Peter smokes because his best friend Paul smokes, and Paul smokes because his parents smoke, and Paul’s parents began smoking because their best friends have already been smoking.” The principle of imitation as an explanation ultimately involves a circular argument, thus LMU-researchers have begun to use a different approach that concentrates more on ascertaining the individual’s reasons for smoking. The basic assumption here is that smoking is a behavior that typically begins during adolescence, and is – in principle – potentially attractive to all young persons. In this scenario, whether or not a person actually takes up smoking depends on how he or she assesses the costs involved. These costs include not only the financial costs of the behavior itself, i.e. the price of cigarettes, but also other consequences, for example, losing the parent´s appreciation when an adolescent decides to ignore the advice not to smoke. “More restrictive laws on smoking in public would in itself raise the social cost of the behavior, simply by making it much more difficult for smokers to indulge in the habit.”

The basic premise of the recent study is the plain assumption that cigarette smoking is an activity that is characteristic of adolescence and, as such, is attractive for virtually all youngsters. If this is the case, then one must inquire into the factors that determine whether or not a given individual takes up or gives up the habit. “There are several factors that play a role in the decision to take up smoking which we can define as costs“, says Wimmer. “First of all, there are financial costs associated with smoking. How much money one can afford to spend on cigarettes will, in the first place, determine just how easy it is for a person to begin smoking and to sustain the habit.” But the price of cigarettes is not the only relevant cost to be considered. The attitude of one’s parents to smoking is also an important factor. If parents explicitly forbid their children to smoke, the costs increase, because each child must now take a deliberate decision to ignore that prohibition. How long one remains among the ranks of smokers, on the other hand, depends on the degree of addiction, concern for health effects and the attitude of one’s partner to smoking.“

In the realm of human behavior, no single size will ever fit all. But it turns out that a model based on the considerations sketched out above can correctly predict whether or not a young person will take up smoking in about 80% of the cases. The LMU researchers interpret this result as convincing evidence for the explanatory power of their model. As Wimmer emphasizes, “More restrictive laws on smoking in public would add another factor to the calculation – on the negative side. However, forecasting the effects of such a ban is fraught with difficulties, because we are dealing with social behavior. A legally binding ban that affects everyone could bias attitudes and behavior in a very different way than the disapproval of single persons“ (suwe)


Dipl. Soz. Thomas Wimmer
Department of Sociology
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München
Phone: +49 (0) 89 / 2180 – 3256


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