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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.

Faith in Tobacco Control

How spirituality can help prevent and reduce smoking

Sara Perry and Ian Kirkpatrick

Reprinted from the "Tobacco" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (4), p. 24

It’s ironic that after decades of research into ways to prevent and reduce smoking, the very individuals who are most vulnerable to tobacco’s negative effects are often still overlooked. Rural populations, minority groups, people on lower incomes or those with fewer years of education—these, among many others, are more likely to experience harms from smoking, yet are less likely to be exposed to services that can protect them and lower their risks.1-2 Exploring opportunities to close this gap is a priority in tobacco control. And working with people’s spiritual faith could offer one path toward reducing tobacco’s burden of harm.

Faith may protect against smoking

The connections between religion and human health have often been ignored, but a growing body of evidence points to a link between certain forms of spiritual involvement and everything from longer life expectancy to healthier eating.3 In fact, religious commitment could help to protect against drug use, including smoking. Research indicates that spiritual involvement may be related to lower rates of tobacco use, and later start-up of use.4 Being part of a faith community may also be linked to consuming fewer cigarettes.5 In addition, youth who attend religious events seem more likely to reduce or quit smoking. And young people who say that faith and prayer are important to them may be more prone to staying smoke-free.6

So what’s behind this tie between religion and tobacco? It’s possible that faith groups offer strong social networks that favour non-smoking lifestyles. Or perhaps they teach coping skills and positive self-esteem, which help to prevent smoking. Some even argue that maybe we’ve got it backwards: that drug use itself scares people away from religion, isolating them from one of the very systems that offers lasting support and care.3

Faith communities may be an ideal vehicle for tobacco control

Faith is important to many of us. About 65% of British Columbians report that they affiliate with a specific religion.7 Plus, more than 40% have said they physically attend religious services at least once a year.8

In addition, there are nearly 4,000 non-profit organizations in BC focused on religious activities, many working at the municipal, city, rural community, or neighbourhood level.9 This local focus is important, as it hints that religions have a presence in areas that have typically been left out of tobacco control. Moreover, it suggests that faith communities could be a key tool in accessing those who are most at risk of smoking harms.

In fact, research indicates that religious groups do have direct contact with vulnerable, hard-to-reach people.10-12 What’s more, faith communities may be able to deliver health services more quickly and at less cost than others, and may be more successful than the government in providing smoking cessation programs to tobacco users.13-14 Arguably, this is because faith communities tend to have long-term, personal relationships with their members, which may make them better able to support and monitor individual quit outcomes.

Effective cessation services in religious settings haven’t seen a lot of scientific research. Nonetheless, some evidence shows that faith-based programs can help motivate people to change, including the most vulnerable smokers.15-16 As well, faith communities tend to possess a type of legitimacy and respect that governments may not. Faith communities are complex and diverse systems, which respond to the equally complex and diverse needs of the local population. This complexity and diversity should not be forgotten. Health officials have too often dealt with religions as if they were all the same.17 These actions have led some spiritual groups to shun involvement with researchers and health programs. It’s no wonder, then, that faith-based tobacco control is still in its infancy.

Ultimately, spiritual groups link into powerful systems of social and environmental support, which are often vital to smoking prevention and cessation. To neglect these systems is to miss out on a key opportunity to impact public health. Religious communities can help to reduce the burden of harm from smoking—and this should leave us with faith that the most vulnerable individuals don’t have to keep slipping through the cracks of tobacco control.

About the authors
Sara and Ian are both with the Communication and Resource Unit of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of BC. Sara is the Research Coordinator, Ian is the Stakeholder Relations Officer
  1. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “inverse care law.” Hart, J.T. (1971). The inverse care law. Lancet, 1(7696), 405-412.

  2. Chesterman, J., Judge, K., Bauld, L. et al. (2005). How effective are the English smoking treatment services in reaching disadvantaged smokers? Addiction, 100(Suppl. 2), 36-45.

  3. Lee, B.Y. & Newberg, A.B. (2005). Religion and health: A review and critical analysis. Zygon, 40(2), 443-468.

  4. Weaver, A.J., Flannelly, K J. & Strock, A.L. (2005). A review of research on the effects of religion on adolescent tobacco use published between 1990 and 2003. Adolescence, 40(160), 761-776.

  5. Brown, T.T., Scheffler, R.M., Seo, S. et al. (2006). The empirical relationship between community social capital and the demand for cigarettes. Health Economics, 15(11), 1159-1172.

  6. Nonnemaker, J., McNeely, C.A. & Blum, R.W. (2006). Public and private domains of religiosity and adolescent smoking transitions. Social Science and Medicine, 62(12), 3084-3095.

  7. Statistics Canada. (2001). Census of Canada. Ottawa: Author.

  8. Statistics Canada. (2004). General Social Survey: An overview. Ottawa: Author.

  9. Statistics Canada. (2005). Cornerstones of community: Highlights of the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations (Rev. 2003). Ottawa: Author.

  10. Brooks, R.G., & Koenig, H.G. (2002). Crossing the secular divide: Government and faith-based organizations as partners in health. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 32(3), 223-234.

  11. Reinert, B., Campbell, C., Carver, V. et al. (2003). Joys and tribulations of faith-based youth tobacco use prevention: A case study in Mississippi. Health Promotion Practice, 4(3), 228-235.

  12. Winett, R.A., Anderson, E.S., Whiteley, J.A. et al. (1999). Church-based health behavior programs: Using social cognitive theory to formulate interventions for at-risk populations. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 8, 129-142.

  13. El Awa, F. (2004). The role of religion in tobacco control interventions. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 82(12), 894.

  14. DeHaven, M.J., Hunter, I.B., Wilder, L. et al. (2004). Health programs in faith-based organizations: Are they effective? American Journal of Public Health, 94(6), 1030-1036.

  15. Voorhees, C.C., Stillman, F.A., Swank, R.T. et al. (1996). Heart, body, and soul: Impact of church-based smoking cessation interventions on readiness to quit. Preventive Medicine, 25(3), 277-285.

  16. Schorling, J.B., Roach, J., Siegel, M. et al. (1997). A trial of church-based smoking cessation interventions for rural African Americans. Preventive Medicine, 26(1), 92-101.

  17. Chatters, L.M., Levin, J.S. & Ellison, C.G. (1998). Public health and health education in faith communities. Health Education & Behavior, 25(6), 689-699.

  18. See

  19. For example, see, or


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