FEATURE Smoking, vaping and social identity By Gordon Stribling It’s common knowledge among the vaping community that nicotine is far less harmful than certain individuals in the tobacco-control industry would have us believe. Some experts claim that it’s no more of a strain on the heart than caffeine. But it is addictive, or at least habit-forming. Herein lies the genesis of the demonisation of the substance because it is the nicotine that keeps people smoking. As renowned tobacco researcher Michael Russell said back in 1977: “People smoke for the nicotine, but they die from the tar.” Addictions and habits are not just biochemical processes. Our environment, ritualistic behaviour and social cues all play their role in keeping people smoking and, in three-quarters of quit attempts, relapsing. A University of East Anglia (UEA) study published in July has shed light on the role smoking plays in forming social identity and why this makes it so much harder for smokers to successfully quit. The team led by Dr Caitlin Notley interviewed 43 smokers who had quit but relapsed later on. The subjects discussed their history of smoking, their past quit attempts and the reasons why their efforts had failed. The researchers then focused on 23 individuals who discussed their experiences in further detail. The team found that as the individuals started smoking, particularly if they were teenagers at the time, their habits were being heavily influenced by their social environment and close personal relationships. This helped establish their smoker identity. It can be incredibly difficult to let go of such a formative and ingrained aspect of who we are, and we may even face the prospect of leaving friends behind when we quit. “When people attempt to quit smoking, what they are really doing is attempting to bury part of their old identity and reconfigure a new one,” Dr Notley said. “That can be hard. Particularly when it’s something that has been ‘part of them’ for most of their adult life.” It is natural to want to feel included in a social group. And while your friends may not be your friends because they are smokers, there will be certain rituals and collective experiences you can miss out on if you stop being a smoker. No more huddling in the smoking area at work or nipping outside for a smoke on a night out. Dr Notley said that creating a new social identity can make it easier for smokers to successfully quit. 78 | VM19 Va us c ping he a l ‘smo st off ps and ker’ the wit repla tag h mor somet ce it e po hing sitiv e “For example, ex-smokers may take up new sports or hobbies that give them a sense of belonging to a group that does not involve harmful health behaviours.” This might provide us with another explanation as to why so many smokers find it so much easier to switch to vaping rather than traditional forms of nicotine-replacement therapy like patches and gum. Dr Notley addressed this point in an interview with Newsweek: “Vaping may be a suitable alternative, and offers a social identity, to ex-smokers who find it difficult to give up nicotine completely.” Evidence of this social identity can be found at expos, on YouTube, in vape shops and in this very magazine. While many people pay no thought to vaping beyond its health benefits, for many others it becomes a part of who they are. As much as we might have enjoyed the act of smoking in a previous life, the ‘smoker’ label comes with a lot of baggage. Vaping helps us project a more positive image of responsibility and a commitment to self-improvement. While vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, there have been a handful of studies on the link between vaping and social identity. A 2015 study published in Psychology & Health aimed to find out what young adult smokers and vapers liked and disliked about e-cigarettes.