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Quitting Smoking as a Group

Tara Dairman

May 30, 2008

A new study of social networks and smoking has found that when a person quits smoking, his decision may have a big effect on the smoking behaviors of his family members and friends.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA, part of the National Institutes of Health [NIH]), and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was published in the May 22 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. In it, researchers examined data on smoking behaviors from over 12,000 participants in the Framingham Heart Study (FHS). The FHS is a long-term study that has been measuring cardiovascular health and risk factors in three generations of people from Framingham, Massachusetts, for over 60 years.

Looking at data collected between 1971 and 2003, the researchers found that when a person quit smoking, a cascade effect was often seen throughout the person’s network of family, friends, and coworkers. For example, when a husband or wife quit smoking, the other spouse was 67% more likely to quit, too; among siblings, when one quit smoking, the others were 25% more likely to quit; when a friend quit smoking, other friends were 36% more likely to quit; and when a worker in a small office quit, coworkers were 34% more likely to quit.

The researchers found that the closeness of people’s relationships, not how close people lived to one another, was the key to the spread of smoking behaviors. (For instance, neighbors’ smoking habits did not affect one another significantly.) Also, people with more education (at least one year of college) were more influenced by their contacts’ decisions to quit smoking than those with a high school education or less.

The researchers and their colleagues concluded that social ties play a big role in determining whether people quit smoking, and that future health behavior interventions should be designed to take advantage of this system. For example, smoking interventions could be targeted to small peer groups rather than just individuals.

The same research team published a similar study last year about the spread of obesity through social networks; you can read more about it in “Is Obesity ‘Catching’? And Should It Be Diagnosed?”

For more information about how smoking affects people’s risk of diabetes and its complications, see
“New Risk of Smoking Found for Type 1.” And for an online guide and support system for quitting smoking, please visit www.smokefree.gov.

Have you successfully quit smoking? Did you feel inspired by someone you knew who had done the same, or do you think your decision may have helped someone else quit, too? Please share your story with a comment below.



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