Why Do People Smoke? Faculty Insight from Research on Arab-Americans

Courtesy of Del Dysart
Courtesy of Del Dysart


You’ve seen them, or maybe you take part: a gaggle of students blatantly smoking two meters in front of the new designated smoking areas.

So, what’s the science behind our reasoning for picking up a cigarette -- or refusing to put one down?

Mona Amer ’98, associate professor of psychology and chair of the Department of Psychology, who co-authored a chapter for the Handbook of Arab American Policy, says it has as much to do with cultural and behavioral factors as it does psychological addiction. Though the chapter she contributed to is focused on Arab-Americans, the findings and her insight can also be useful in understanding how a population of largely Egyptian students react to AUC’s Tobacco-Free Campus Policy.

“There are some things that are parallels [between U.S. and Arab cultures],” she said. “Sometimes, it’s seen as a sign of manhood, and lots of social interactions take place over tobacco. So you'll see that trend in the U.S. as well.”

Egypt is one of 15 countries with a high level of tobacco-related health problems. According to the World Health Organization's most recent estimates, about 20 percent of people in the country smoke daily. That's only half the number of people who smoked in the United States during the mid-1900s. The decline in American cigarette smokers in the late '90's may have something to do with the way the trend has continued here.

“There is more intense marketing in this part of the world [the Middle East and North Africa region] because of the intense shift in Europe and the United States, where tobacco companies have sort of lost their stronghold,” Amer said.  

The United States’ rocky relationship with smoking has historically been a battle between members of the scientific community and the tobacco industry. In the first half of the 1900s, on both the silver and small screen, the era’s biggest –– and most glamorous –– celebrities touted cancer sticks as accessories in nearly every appearance.

In short, the tobacco industry was the most pervasive and successful advertising giant of the 20th century -- maybe of all time, convincing nearly half of the population in industrialized nations to smoke despite increasing warnings about health risks. The industry even financed its own medical research to counter evidence against its products.

Eventually, peer-reviewed scientific studies began to break through the noise in the United States. Today, less than a quarter of Americans smoke. That number varies among racial and ethnic minority groups, according to Amer.

Amer’s chapter notes that in randomly selected U.S. states, the prevalence of smoking was general higher among Arab-American communities.

In transitioning to a completely smoke and tobacco-free campus, Amer noted, AUC should assess the factors that motivate people to smoke. More than 60 percent of the people who said they are smokers in a tobacco-free survey at AUC said they do so to alleviate stress.

The University’s Tobacco-Free Committee is looking into ways to offer stress-relieving zones and programs on campus. Currently, the Smoking Cessation Clinic is open from 12 to 2 pm on Mondays and offers trained professionals to work one-on-one with those who want to quit.

“We need to help our community –– students, staff and faculty –– breathe a better quality of air and avoid the complications of smoking, as well as second-hand smoking,” said Dr. Mohamed Amin, director of AUC's Office of Medical Services, and physicians at the University’s Smoking Cessation Clinic.

The most effective methods of helping people quit, Amer explained, take into account the stages of quitting, beginning with pre-contemplation and ending with maintenance.

“Target people at the stage they are at,” Amer said. “That's not an individual level; it has to be also at a University level. The University as a whole has to invest time, effort and dialogue into the process.”

At AUC, despite the fact that almost half of the survey participants agree that smoking should not be allowed everywhere on campus, more than 50 percent think it will be impossible to implement. A majority of that percentage blame Egypt’s culture.

That’s just not the case, says Amer. Kicking the habit is difficult, she said, but not impossible -- at least not any less possible in Egypt than it’s been elsewhere.

“I think the idea that the culture can't change is a myth,” Amer said. “Cultures change all the time; priorities change all the time...The idea that it can't be done in Egypt, that there's something special about Egyptians, is just not true.”