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Study: Ex-Smokers Feel a Loss of Identity After Quitting

Study: Ex-Smokers Feel a Loss of Identity After Quitting


A recent paper published in the Journal of Substance Use takes a look at the way smokers and ex-smokers identify themselves as part of a larger social group to gain an understanding of why quitting smoking is so difficult for so many people. The study found that identifying as ‘a smoker’ was a huge part of the relapse process, and that when approaching smoking cessation it’s imperative to not only address the problem of physical addiction, but also the societal attitudes that encourage relapse.

Researchers examined triggers that cause ex-smokers to go back to smoking after days, months, or even years of remaining tobacco-free. These were often emotional and not completely sparked by the addictive qualities found in cigarettes, they're instead part of larger social forces that influence people to continue their addictions.

“What we have found is that relapse is associated with a whole range of emotional triggers. It is often tied up with people wanting to recapture a lost social identity – their smoker identity.” Dr Caitlin Notley, Lead Researcher of the study.

Essential to the study was the idea that social relationships are integral to what makes up a smoker's identity. In order to identify as “a smoker,” it’s imperative to be influenced by peers and family members. By situating a smoker within this larger sphere of influence, the ‘smoker’ and the ‘ex-smoker’ are not just beholden to addiction to tobacco and nicotine but are participating in larger socially-constructed identity.

The research team’s method for the study was to look at in-depth interviews with people who had quit and relapsed. Forty-three participants described their history of smoking, their current quit attempt, and participated in a discussion on smoking relapses in general. Researchers then chose to study a sample of 23 of the participants who provided the most detailed information about their relapse behaviors.

“The social environment and close personal relationships are major influences on people, usually teens when they start smoking in the first place. People learn, socially, to become a ‘smoker’ – it’s part of a group membership and it becomes an important part of people’s identity,” added Notley.

As a result of the sense of comradery and social status engendered with the identity of a smoker, when ex-smokers relapse and begin smoking again, they feel a renewed sense of belonging and social standing. Notley points out that after relapsing, smokers feel a sense of relief and pleasure from smoking again, mixed with guilt and shame. Social taboo mixed with regained acceptance into a group identity makes going back to smoking a tantalizing prospect.

So what does this all mean for vaping and the way that vapor products interact with smokers? Most vapers are ex-smokers, so it means a lot. While most criticism of vapor products reduces the act of vaping as essentially the same as the act of smoking and often discounts the social identifying traits that make smoking so easy to return to after vowing to quit. Studies like this highlight why more studies on the effects on ex-smokers who feel that loss of identity, and could be an excellent jumping off point for more studies in the future.