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Do People Want to Date You if you Smoke?

The social evolution of smokers' sex-appeal and stigma.

You might remember the final scene in the blockbuster movie Grease (1978), where Danny (John Travolta) just finished transforming his slick bad boy image to become a jock, only to be shocked by Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) showcasing her own transformation into a vision in black leather and red high heels... smoking a cigarette. Quite a scene in the late 1970s. But is that imagery still attractive?

Image by Abdulmomn Kadhim from Pixabay
Source: Image by Abdulmomn Kadhim from Pixabay

Cigars, Cigarettes, and Public Image

While smoking has decreased in popularity as a social practice, the question is whether smokers have as well. Is this group just less visible, or also less socially desirable? Does it matter what type of tobacco product someone smokes? Studies reveal evolving public sentiment.

Coy Callison et al. in a piece aptly entitled “The Aura of Tobacco Smoke: Cigars and Cigarettes as Image Makers” examined this issue. [i] Their participant pool of college undergraduates evaluated the character traits of both men and women about 10 years older than the students, who were depicted smoking cigarettes, cigars, or not smoking.

Regardless of the evaluated persons' gender, the researchers found that appeal was linked to the gender of the evaluator. Generally, men and women agreed that cigarette smokers were less appealing than nonsmokers. Men found cigar smokers less appealing than cigarette smokers, while women perceived both cigar and cigarette smokers as equally appealing. Regarding other perceptions, both men and women also judged cigar smokers as more confident and secure than cigarette smokers or nonsmokers.

Callison et al. cite prior research where nonsmoking college students perceived cigarette smokers as more rebellious and less conventional. Nonetheless, they found cigarette smokers to have an image that was predominantly negative. They were perceived as “less desirable dates, less healthy, less sexy, and less sophisticated than their nonsmoking counterparts.”

In other research, Callison et al. note that when participants were asked to evaluate photographs of persons who either held a lit cigarette with a cigarette pack in front of them on a table, or photos of the same posture and demeanor without the cigarettes, participants consistently perceived smokers more negatively than nonsmokers.

Is Smoking Attractive or Aversive?

How do people feel about dating someone who might light up? David Hines et al. in a study entitled “Regular Occasional Smoking by College Students: Personality Attributions of Smokers and Nonsmokers,” studied this question in terms of desirability and personality attribution of smokers and nonsmokers. [ii] They investigated whether increased smoking by college students is linked with a positive self-image, studying how both regular and occasional smokers rated the extent to which smoking alters self-image on 18 self-attributes that may be associated with smoking. They then had nonsmokers rate smokers on the same attributes.

Participants all rated three attributes negatively: that smokers were less healthy, less desirable dating partners, and less attractive while smoking. Interestingly, occasional smokers rated some attributions positively, noting that smoking “made them feel more daring and more adventurous and did not make them feel like an outcast.” Nonsmokers rated additional attributes negatively, classifying smokers as “less sexy, less feminine, less sophisticated, less masculine, and less mature.”

Smoking Challenges Socially and Situationally

In modern times, people cite a myriad of reasons they are turned off by smokers. These include physical undesirability, including foul smell, as well as relational issues—such as the potential apprehension of introducing a smoking dating partner to one’s (nonsmoking) family. And then there are situational challenges in dating a smoker, given the dwindling amount of settings where smoking is allowed—which might actually be a good thing in the long run.

Although we have come a long way in dissuading young people from lighting up in the first place, we continue to focus our attention on those who have already taken up the habit. In addition to behavioral interventions and medical non-smoking aids, publicizing smokers’ social undesirability is part of a concentrated effort to “clear the air” of outdated stereotypes, and promote a healthy lifestyle.


[i] Callison, Coy, James A. Karrh, and Dolf Zillmann. 2002-07. “The Aura of Tobacco Smoke: Cigars and Cigarettes as Image Makers.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 32 (7): 1329-1343.

[ii] Hines, David, Amelia C. Fretz, and Nicole L. Nollen. 1998. “Regular Occasional Smoking by College Students: Personality Attributions of Smokers and Nonsmokers.” Psychological Reports 83 (3, Pt 2): 1299–1306.….

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