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Is Smoking Still Viewed as Sexy?

The social and relational consequences of lighting up.

To quote but contextualize the 1970s Virginia Slims slogan, we “have come a long way, baby” in discovering the serious health risks associated with smoking cigarettes. Consequently, smoking rates have dropped significantly over the last few decades.

With the drop in usage has come a decrease in social acceptability—even within the increasingly few public areas where it is still permitted. But what about personal image? Is it currently viewed as glamorous or hazardous? Research has some answers.

 Kelly Hau from New York/CC BY Creative Commons
Source: Kelly Hau from New York/CC BY Creative Commons

Smoking and Sex Appeal

John S. Seiter et al. (2010) investigated how smokers are perceived in terms of attractiveness, likeability, cleanliness, health, and credibility.[i] Examining how male and female models are perceived depending on whether they were smoking or not smoking cigarettes, they found that smoking cigarettes to be damaging to a person’s image in every category they studied, with the exception of credibility. The models in their study wore the same clothes, had the same facial expression, and were positioned in the same pose; the only difference was the smoking models held a cigarette with smoke rising from the tip.

They found that except for the areas of composure (where they found no differences) and extroversion (where smokers were rated higher than their nonsmoking counterparts), smokers were rated less favorably on every variable they examined.

Seiter et al. note that perhaps the most significant result they found relates to perceptions of likeability and social attractiveness. In contrast with previous research that found no difference, they found that smokers were rated significantly lower than nonsmokers in these areas—leading them to suggest that people are increasingly viewing smokers in a negative light.

Another study by John R. Beech and James Whittaker (2001) had examined how female smokers are perceived by both men and women who either did or did not smoke themselves.[ii] Participants were shown female models posing with or without a cigarette, or just wearing glasses, and rated their perceived intelligence, attractiveness, and sexual interest.

They found that models who were not smoking and wore no glasses were considered to be the most attractive, and least attractive when wearing glasses. Regarding the ratings of sexual interest, participants found the models in the smoking pose were rated as being most sexually interested, and models wearing glasses were rated as being the least sexually interested. On the topic of intelligence, it was the models wearing glasses who were ranked as most intelligent, with smokers ranked as least intelligent.

Does affinity attract? Perhaps to an extent. Beech and Whittaker found that participants who were smokers rated smoking models as more attractive, but on par with nonsmokers in terms of perceived intelligence. Nonsmoking participants, on the other hand, rated smoking models as both less intelligent and less attractive than nonsmokers. They found no significant gender distinctions in their results.

Male Smokers as Short-Termers

Eveline Vincke (2016) examined perceptions of young male smokers in contexts associated with short-term mating.[iii] She found that women perceive men who smoke and drink as having a more short-term orientation than their abstaining counterparts and that tobacco and alcohol use (to a greater extent) yielded some attraction benefits within the context of short-term mating.

Why is this true? Vincke notes that cigarettes and alcohol are forms of physical risk-taking, due to the many negative health consequences. She thus notes that because the female preference for male physical risk-taking operates in a short-term context, as a sexual courtship strategy, smoking and drinking are only effective in enhancing a man’s attractiveness in a short-term context, but lowered his long-term desirability. Consequently, such men are viewed as more appealing dating partners only on a short term basis.

Abstaining Is Attractive

Taken together, this research appears to indicate the desirability of tobacco-free living both personally and relationally. Not only are nonsmokers viewed as more attractive overall, and particularly when viewed as potential long term partners, they will no doubt be healthier as a group due to the negative health consequences caused by tobacco use.


[i] Seiter, John S, Weger, Harry, Merrill, Mandy L, Mark McKenna, R, and Sanders, Matthew L. 2010. “Nonsmokers' Perceptions of Cigarette Smokers' Credibility, Likeability, Attractiveness, Considerateness, Cleanliness, and Healthiness.” Communication Research Reports 27 (2): 143–58.

[ii] Beech, John R and James Whittaker, “What Is The Female Image Projected By Smoking?” Psychologia, 2001, Vol.44 (3), p.230-236.

[iii] Vincke, Eveline. “The Young Male Cigarette and Alcohol Syndrome: Smoking and Drinking as a Short-Term Mating Strategy.” Evolutionary Psychology, (March 2016).