Why Do Dancers Smoke?

According to Lalith Munasinghe and Nachum Sicherman smokers earn less than non-smokers. Their starting wage is lower and wage growth flatter. In an intriguingly titled paper, “Why Do Dancers Smoke? Smoking, Time Preference, and Wage Dynamics”, they use smoking as a proxy for people’s attitude towards time. Smokers are more orientated towards the present and immediate gratification. Non-smokers seem to live Max Weber‘s Protestant Ethic, deferring gratification for future benefit.

As they put it in their introduction:
“The title of our paper ?Why Do Dancers Smoke?? suggests a paradox. Dancers place great importance on physical health, strength, and fitness; and yet, smoking leads to untoward health, loss of strength, and diminished fitness. We contend that the concept of time preference, the individual valuations of present versus future consumption, resolves this apparent paradox. Both activities sacrifice some distant benefit for a more present-oriented gratification. Dancers are passionate, if not obsessed, with their work; but their careers are short with dim, if not nonexistent, prospects of future earnings. Even more obvious is the fact that smokers sacrifice future health for an immediate source of pleasure. Hence the answer we consider is that dancers smoke because they are more present-oriented.”
Anticipating a common objection to their thesis, they add in a footnote:
“Seminar participants never fail to point out the ?real? reason why dancers smoke: weight control. Although this answer is not inconsistent with our claim that dancers have higher discount rates, among 120 plus professional dancers who smoke (based on a survey we conducted in New York City in 2001), a reason for smoking they least agree with is ?weight control.? Among the reasons they most agree with are ?relaxation? and ?enjoyment.?
As part of their study they conducted a survey of students in their universities, in which they found the highest percentage of smokers in students studying Dance, English and History. The lowest percentage was found in students studying Psychology, Engineering and Natural Science.
In a time when the issue of smoking seems to have been reduced to a simple minded non-smokers good, smokers bad, Munasinghe and Sicherman’s highlighting of the relationship between occupational choice and smoking points to a more fruitful way of exploring the practice.
Back in 1963 when the epidemiological evidence on the dangers of smoking had become firm, Carl C. Seltzer, a physical anthropologist, published an article in The Atlantic, “Why People Smoke”. One of his conclusions was that while it was difficult to characterise smokers, at that time non-smokers could be described in the following terms:
“The consensus of various studies indicates the nonsmoker to be of middle-class origin rather than in either the upper or lower classes, reflecting the mark of middle-class respectability and the persistence of the Puritanical trait. Seemingly, he considers smoking one of the small vices to which the flesh is heir, is often pious and a devout churchgoer, and is frequently an abstainer from alcohol. While the nonsmoker tends to be dependable, purposeful, hard-working, stable in marriage, and quietly progressive in general outlook, he is less gregarious and sociable than the smoker. He is described as being more often inner-directed or an introvert, and is, accordingly, immoderately preoccupied with his own thought processes and other internal states. More rigid in personality than the smoker, the nonsmoker is attracted to scientific rather than business studies, and during his adolescence he tends to be more seriously absorbed in his studies and academic achievements.”
The profile of the non-smoker is likely to be more diverse today. After all in the USA their numbers have grown from being 60% of adults in 1964 to about 73% today. But for many smokers Seltzer’s profile is a stereotype we don’t want to be. Smoking seems to be as much a matter of identity as it is anything else. As Malcolm Gladwell put it in “The Tipping Point”, “Smoking was never cool. Smokers are cool.”
But smoking also has a pharmacological effect. As Kathleen Cushman describes in her review of David Krogh‘s “Smoking: The Artificial Passion”:
“People use “workplace drugs” like tobacco, Valium, and caffeine, Krogh says, not so much to induce an exotic sensation as to deal with the stresses and strains that make us less ourselves?not to get high, that is, but to “get normal.”
A theme that is picked up by Oliver James:
“So what is it that makes smoking so rewarding? As an anti-depressant, nicotine produces a brief, euphoric sensation by boosting dopamine, yet it also seems to affect serotonin levels (serotonin is the brain chemical that is low in depressives and is boosted by anti-depressants such as Prozac).
Nicotine also affects levels of cortisol, a hormone that plays a vital role in the response to danger. Neurotic people may have high levels. Alternatively, if you have low levels they may need boosting to make you more reactive and alert.
Nicotine seems to affect cortisol levels differentially – if they are too low, it raises them; if too high, it drops them. This probably explains why smoking is more common in people who are anti-social, rebellious, impulsive and risk-taking. Interestingly, being anti-social when young is the single strongest predictor of later smoking. Rebelliousness and risk-taking at 11 predict smoking at 18.”

People who smoke have adopted the practice as a strategy for dealing with life and defining who they are. The fact that the number of smokers seems to have stabilised, even in countries like the USA, where there are massive social pressures against smoking, suggests that current propaganda and health education is no longer working.
What all this suggests to me is that anti-smoking as a moral crusade has itself become dangerous. What seems to be required is more disinterested research into why people smoke, the perceived and actual benefits of smoking, and what, if any, other strategies smokers could adopt to gain these benefits without the harmful effects of smoking.
What might also be worth considering too is whether there are any hidden costs to the possibility of the total elimination of tobacco smoking. The general assumption is that the elimination of tobacco smoking would be an unqualified good. This looks like a moral rather than a scientific judgement.
And, as a final note, from the late Bill Hicks:
“My biggest fear is that if I quit smoking, I’ll become one of you…Don’t take that wrong. I have something to tell you non-smokers that I know for a fact that you don’t know, and I feel it’s my duty to pass on information at all times. Ready?…….Non-smokers die every day…Enjoy your evening. See, I know that you entertain this eternal life fantasy because you’ve chosen not to smoke, but let me be the 1st to POP that bubble and bring you hurtling back to reality….You’re dead too.”