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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Blue-Collar Taste

Researching strategies to shift the smoking norms in trades workers

Kate Dahlstrom, EdD and Tara Ney, PhD, RPsych

Reprinted from the "Tobacco" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (4), pp. 21-22

Smoking rates have been declining in BC and across Canada, except in some segments of society—blue-collar workers being one of them. We are working with BCIT and Health Canada to change this for blue-collar workers. Following is a synopsis of the work we are doing.

“Blue-collar taste means taste that punches in every time you light up. Taste that comes at you straight from the shoulder. Taste that’s never meek or wishy-washy. Blue collar taste…”

Sound tasty? Well, it’s meant to. This is American ad copy for Viceroy cigarettes. It shows how, for decades, the tobacco industry has been targeting and manipulating blue-collar workers to sell its deadly products and make gigantic profits. And, the marketing strategy has been highly successful: trades workers have been among the highest smoking rates in British Columbia, ranging from about 40% to 55%1—three times higher than the provincial rate of 16%. Furthermore, this population smokes more heavily, and they have less success in quitting.2 Sadly, this means that blue-collar workers will suffer higher rates of tobacco-related diseases like lung cancer, emphysema, strokes and heart disease.

In Canada, even though there is such a compelling rationale to support this population to quit, there have been no specific tobacco cessation interventions to help them. However, in November 2004, we teamed with the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and received funding from Health Canada to develop an ongoing smoking cessation strategy for trade school students—targeting them before they enter the workforce.

What trades students are telling us

So far, we have learned a number of things. We have determined that trade school students want to quit smoking, but are unaware of quit smoking programs. Also, we are coming to understand that this population presents a number of needs that are quite different from those of other populations.

For example, in focus groups with the students, we learned a lot about their view of their smoking experiences. One student said, fatalistically, “We’re [iron workers] in the top ten of dangerous jobs. It’s high risk. I’ll probably die from a fall before I die from smoking.” Another said, “Once your apprenticeship starts, you smoke a lot more because there’s so much stress.” A student who was apprenticing in construction said, “No one at a construction site cares if you smoke. And it’s hard not to smoke on the job, because you’re kind of on your own.” And, from an aircraft maintenance engineering student: “If you’re working for a small company up north, everybody smokes. It gives you something to do, because most of the time you’re just so bored.” The most astounding finding was that many students thought they would be lifelong smokers and would smoke more when they actually got into the workplace.

A two-part intervention

As a result of these findings, Health Canada has extended this project. We are now developing a two-pronged strategy to shift the culture of smoking that many trades workers are exposed to.

One part of the strategy will infuse smoking prevention messages into the training curricula of trades workers/students. An important part of this curriculum will be to ensure construction workers understand the synergistic effects of smoking with other toxic chemicals encountered at the construction site. For example, a construction worker who smokes is 11 times more at risk for developing lung cancer; a construction worker who works with asbestos is five times more at risk of lung cancer; but a construction worker who both smokes and works with asbestos is 50 times more at risk for developing lung cancer.3 When the hazard of tobacco smoke is added to other workplace toxins, workers’ risk skyrockets. The body needs to deal with both the toxic chemicals at the construction site and the toxins in the tobacco smoke. Previous research shows that when trades workers understand this synergistic effect of smoking they are more likely to quit smoking.4.5

The other part of the strategy is to develop tobacco control awareness and policies for construction sites. While most municipalities in BC ban smoking in indoor workplaces, they do not address smoking at outdoor worksites or the use of other tobacco products (like chewing tobacco) at work. We are seeking opportunities to develop partnerships with BC and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, WorkSafe BC and specific trade unions. The aim is to work together toward building awareness and adopting voluntary joint tobacco control policies at construction sites that aren’t covered by municipal or provincial law.

The overall objective is to shift the culture of smoking that many blue-collar workers are exposed to and to support them to choose healthier lifestyles. We are optimistic that, as this project continues, a gradual shift will occur.

About the authors

Kate is an experienced educator, curriculum developer, writer and presenter. She has authored Science, Tobacco and You; Quit 4 Life (revision), Smoke Screen and THINK SMART! DON’T START!, as well as numerous research and evaluation papers.

Tara is a Registered Psychologist and Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria. She is the co-editor of Smoking and Human Behaviour, and has researched and published in many areas, including addictions and clinical assessment.

Tara and Kate are the developers of the widely used tobacco cessation and prevention programs for public schools, Kick the Nic and bc.tobaccofacts.

  1. Health Canada. (1996). Smoking on the job: Trends and issues - Smoking prevalence in the labour force. In Workplace smoking: Trends, issues and Strategies (Report).

  2. Barbeau, E.M., Li, Y., Calderon, P. et al. (2006). Results of a union-based smoking cessation intervention for apprentice iron workers (United States). Cancer Causes & Control, 17(1), 53-61.

  3. US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Office of Smoking and Health. (1985). The health consequences of smoking – Cancer and chronic lung disease in the workplace: Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: Author.

  4. Erren, T.C., Jacobsen, M., & Piekarski, C. (1999). Synergy between asbestos and smoking on lung cancer risks. Epidemiology, 10(4), 405-411.

  5. Omowunmi, Y.O., Afilaka, A.A., Doucette, J. et al. (2002). Study of smoking behavior in asbestos workers. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 41(1), 62-69.


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