Smokers Can’t Blow Off Stress

Ask cigarette smokers why they light up and one answer you’re likely to hear is that it relieves stress.

But if that’s the goal, it’s not at all clear that cigarettes deliver the goods. Half (50%) of all smokers say they “frequently” experience stress in their daily lives, compared with just 35% of those who once smoked and have now quit and 31% of those who never smoked, according to a Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends survey conducted June 16-July16, 2008 among a nationally representative sample of 2,250 adults.

The finding raises as many questions as answers. Does it mean that the kinds of people who smoke are pre-disposed to stress? Does it mean that the stress relief smokers get while smoking doesn’t last once they don’t have a cigarette in hand? Or might it mean that the whole idea that smoking relieves stress is illusory?

Psychologists, physiologists and neuroscientists are better situated than public opinion researchers to supply answers. Nevertheless, the Pew Research survey sheds some new light on the subject by allowing for a range of comparisons among current smokers, former smokers and non-smokers on matters related to stress, happiness, health and life satisfaction.

The survey findings come at a time when the share of adults in the United States who smoke appears to have stabilized following a half-century decline. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control show that for the period of January through June 2008, the share of current smokers in the adult population was 20.8%, a bit higher than in 2007, when it was 19.7%.

Moreover, the one-in-five adults who smoke now have a new reason to feel stressed. On April 1, the U.S. government imposed its largest-ever tax increase on cigarettes; Uncle Sam’s take on a pack of cigarettes shot up to $1.01 from 39 cents. (The Pew Research survey was taken well before these taxes went up.)

The Pew Research finding of a strong correlation between smoking and stress raises an obvious question: Is the stress a by-product of the smoking or of other unrelated factors?

One way to look for answers is by conducting a multivariate regression analysis.2 Ours finds that, even after controlling for the basic demographic characteristics of respondents — including gender, age, race, education, income, marital status, and parental status — current smokers are still more likely than non-smokers and quitters to report being frequently stressed.

However, our survey did not ask respondents about their psychological characteristics, so we were unable to weigh the impact of those traits on stress levels. Had we done so, it is possible we would have found that the independent effect of smoking on stress was weak or non-existent.

Happiness, Health, Life SatisfactionHappiness, Health, Life Satisfaction

The survey also finds that smokers are less happy and less healthy than both non-smokers and quitters.

About a quarter of current smokers say that they are very happy, compared with more than a third of quitters and almost four-in-ten non-smokers.

Consistent with what decades of public health research shows, smokers also report being in poorer health than non-smokers and quitters. Fewer than half of smokers (45%) say that their health is excellent or very good, compared with 63% of non-smokers and 55% of former smokers.

When asked whether they are satisfied with their family life, smokers are less likely than non-smokers and quitters to say that they are “very satisfied”: About six-in-ten current smokers say they are very satisfied, compared with about seven-in-ten non-smokers and quitters. Smokers’ satisfaction level with their job is also lower than that of non-smokers, and their satisfaction with their standard of living is lower than that of both quitters and non-smokers.

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