Deniers and Admitters: Examining Smoker Identities in a Changing Tobacco Landscape

Nicotine Tob Res. 2016 Nov;18(11):2130-2137. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntw110. Epub 2016 Apr 16.


Introduction: Smoking prevalence has declined considerably over the past 30 years. This decline has coincided with a growing stigma against smokers and a trend toward nondaily or occasional smoking. Some individuals now deny being a smoker despite current cigarette use-i.e., "deniers"; conversely, occasional smokers who admit to being a smoker are defined as "admitters." Although the "denier" phenomenon has been the focus of recent research, no studies have examined smoker identity in the context of emerging tobacco products and ongoing, statewide tobacco control programs. Recent data from the 2014 Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey provided an opportunity to address these research gaps.

Method: Using the Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey, participants were 242 adults who reported smoking 100 cigarettes lifetime, currently smoking "some days," and past 30-day smoking. Questions also assessed smoker identity, emerging product use and perceptions, and changes in smoking behavior in response to a recent statewide tobacco tax increase.

Results: Regression models revealed no difference in e-cigarette or hookah use between deniers and admitters, but deniers were more likely to perceive that hookah use was less harmful than smoking cigarettes. In response to the tax increase, we found that admitters were more likely than deniers to report thinking about quitting, reducing cigarette amount, and making a quit attempt.

Conclusions: Findings suggest that deniers perceive lower harm from using tobacco products. Tax increases may be less effective at motivating quit attempts in deniers compared to admitters, implying that cessation programs tailored to specific smoking identities could usefully complement tax increases.

Implications: Findings from this study suggest that tobacco tax increases should be coordinated with health promotion interventions to address occasional and social smoking. The denier phenomenon in particular is an important identity-based construct that population-level public health practice should consider in order to design effective tobacco control interventions. In addition, findings from our study and previous research suggest that occasional or social smokers who deny the smoker identity may be slowing progress in reducing smoking rates. Interventions targeting occasional smokers, and in particular, deniers, are needed to accelerate cessation efforts.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Minnesota / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Self Concept*
  • Smoking / epidemiology*
  • Smoking / psychology
  • Smoking Cessation / statistics & numerical data*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Tobacco Products
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / psychology
  • Young Adult