After the Smoke Has Cleared: Reflections from a Former Smoker and Tobacco Researcher

By Haines-Saah, Rebecca J. | Contemporary Drug Problems, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

After the Smoke Has Cleared: Reflections from a Former Smoker and Tobacco Researcher


Haines-Saah, Rebecca J., Contemporary Drug Problems


Tobacco control researchers and practitioners can hold deeply entrenched explanations for why people smoke or fail to quit. From a biomedical perspective focused on nicotine dependency, the smoker is first and foremost an "addict." From a public health perspective, smokers are the victims of the global tobacco epidemic. Both approaches often entail a moralistic rationale for cessation, and by positioning individuals who smoke as the objects of intervention and control, neglect the ways in which social and contextual factors influence smoking practices. At the same time, when people who smoke are viewed as addicts, victims, or mere statistics, the effect of much tobacco control discourse is to deny them agency, and the erasure of their choices, stories, and experiences with tobacco (Poland et al., 2006; see also Dennis, this volume; Robinson & Holdsworth, this volume). Unlike other health fields (e.g., mental health, HIV/AIDS) where so-called consumer/survivors are visible and have an active presence in research and policy forums, current and former tobacco users are virtually absent from tobacco control (Haines, Oliffe, Bottorff, & Poland, 2010), no doubt connected to the fact that tobacco and health initiatives are perceived by people who smoke-and perhaps rightfully so-to be "anti-smoker" in their efforts to denormalize and ultimately eradicate tobacco use. It was perhaps not surprising, then, that as someone who was actively smoking when entering academic tobacco research, I felt quite conflicted, on the defensive, and very much like an outsider from the start. I found that most of the tobacco and health advocates I encountered held dismissive and demeaning views about people who smoke-so much so that it prevented me from being open about my smoking status and personal history with tobacco until I had been working in the field for several years.

In this piece I reflect on my experiences as someone who has smoked and quit smoking while working in tobacco research, in an effort to be critical and reflexive about the binaries of "smoker/nonsmoker," researcher/participant, and insider/outsider that I have struggled with in my academic work over the past decade. Taking my inspiration from the tradition of health sociologists who have written critical, personal narratives of their illness experiences (e.g., Ettorre, 2010a; Frank, 1991, 1997) and from auto ethnographic practices of writing reflexively about how the self informs one's work as a researcher (e.g., Ellis & Bochner, 2000; Ettorre, 2010b), I draw from memories and family photographs to narrate my history of smoking and process of quitting, which took place alongside my indoctrination to the field of tobacco control research. Ultimately, I seek to use my experiences to advocate for tobacco control research and practice that is more tolerant, compassionate, and responsive to the social circumstances of people who smoke.

Becoming a smoker

At some point after I had decided to pursue doctoral research on young women and smoking, my mother gave me an old black and white photograph of me "smoking" my first ciga- rette (see Figure 1). Taken in 1974 when I was about a yearand-a-half old, the image shows a blond-haired cross-eyed toddler in a striped shirt inhaling a lit, half-smoked cigarette. As the family story goes, everyone was sitting around the dining room table smoking cigarettes and I wanted to try one. When she gave me the photograph, my mother explained that she allowed me to try smoking in the hope I would find it unpleasant. It seemed her deterrent strategy was at least for a time successful, as there is a subsequent image of me crying on my mother's shoulder in response to that first cigarette (see Figure 8). The fact that someone thought to photograph this moment shows my parents were aware of the absurdity of a young child smoking, but I think also illustrates their sense of humor about the situation, thinking it would make for a funny photo. …

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