Stigma around smoking affects hiring potential
Anti-smoking and vaping stigma may prevent qualified applicants from being hired

A study has demonstrated that the stigmatization of smoking and vaping can have negative effects in professional settings. Research published by Namita Bhatnagar, professor and F. Ross Johnson fellow at the Asper school of business, shows biased attitudes against smoking — and to a lesser extent vaping — persist in hiring decisions.

Bhatnagar and her co-author Nicolas Roulin, associate professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, N.S., published the smoking study in the international journal Human Relations.

Decades of negative marketing have contributed to reframing smoking as solely a public health issue. With her background in marketing, Bhatnagar wanted to explore whether this campaign has resulted in negative repercussions for individuals who smoke or vape.

Smoking and vaping was found to negatively bias the first impression of applicants in the eyes of interviewers. Troublingly, even a strong job interview was insufficient to counteract this negative first impression. Negative attitudes were found to be stronger toward smokers than vapers, indicating a stronger societal stigma against smoking.

To test Bhatnagar and Roulin’s hypothesis, they conducted mock job interviews. Participants in the study played the role of interviewers and rated actors portraying job applicants. Attitudes toward applicants who smoked or vaped were compared against a neutral behavior, like using a cellphone. The interviewers were allowed to select questions ranging in difficulty and were asked to assess the applicant’s responses.

In addition to participant ratings, the study assessed initial unconscious attitudes toward smoking applicants by using eye-tracking technology. This allowed researchers to determine that interviewers were fixated on smoking cues, indicative of negative attitudes toward smoking.

Bhatnagar recommended that students seeking employment be aware of their visibility as smokers, both in person and online. Social media posts can be screened during the hiring process, so applicants should exercise caution when posting on social media. Applicants should also be wary of smoking in highly visible public spaces designated for smoking, where an interviewer may spot them before an interview.

Additionally, the interviewer should undertake bias awareness training to encourage empathy. These courses could expand to include smoking and other stereotypical signifiers of lower economic status such as weight, tattoos, piercings and cannabis use.

“There’s no end to the traits that you can use to look down on people,” Bhatnagar said.

It is not currently illegal in Canada to discriminate against smokers. It has been proposed that legal protections expand to protect smokers from discrimination, although there has been resistance.

“Legally, there’s a little bit of push and pull right now around smoking,” Bhatnagar said.

This places the responsibility on the individual applicant to be aware of potential anti-smoking biases.

Smokers themselves may be unaware of the extent to which this stigma touches aspects of their lives, including in a professional setting. Many current smokers may have retained the “glamorous” connotations around smoking that have persisted historically. It is this glamorized ideal that public health messaging has targeted.

Historically, shame and finger-wagging have been the go-to methods for public health messaging.

“Public health campaigns are designing messages to dissuade people from doing things that they deem as negative,” Bhatnagar said.

Bhatnagar acknowledged this campaign has successfully reduced smoking rates, particularly in youth and young adults. However, she worries whether the extent of stigmatization has resulted in negative outcomes that outweigh the benefits.

“On the one hand, it has lowered smoking rates, there’s no doubt about it,” Bhatnagar said.

“But on the other hand, it’s come at a cost.”

Some may see parallels in public attitudes toward individuals who choose not to vaccinate against COVID-19. Both are personal health-related decisions that can negatively impact and harm others. Bhatnagar wants to research more into effective strategies for communicating health messages without shame and stigma.

“I think the shame-based strategies, it alienates people that would have otherwise listened,” Bhatnagar said.

The challenge now facing Bhatnagar is to come up with effective marketing strategies to discourage smoking and vaping that do not result in stigmatization. Her research going forward will focus on changing perceptions on a variety of smoking products and the people who use them.

“How do you dissuade people from risky behaviors when you care about them?” Bhatnagar asked.

Marketing solutions could consider the social responsibility, acknowledging the harmful secondary effects of stigmatization.

“Marketing has created this monster,” Bhatnagar said.

It’s fitting that marketing can be a part of the solution.