One in Ten Smokers Lies to His or Her Doctor

Results from a national survey show that smokers are ashamed of their habit and need more support from their health-care provider.

A new survey found that one in ten smokers lie to their doctors about their smoking habit. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user LawPrieR.

The new year always seems like the perfect time to finally kick that cigarette habit. But as any smoker can tell you, it’s easier said than done. In fact, a new national survey found that one in ten smokers lies to his or her health-care provider about the habit, due to the social stigma that surrounds smoking.

“The bottom line is that our very audible efforts to deglamorize smoking have had an impact,” says Dr. Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of Legacy, a nonprofit health organization dedicated to helping smokers quit.

The survey asked 3,146 current and former smokers whether they disclose their smoking status to their health-care provider (HCP). While a majority of participants said they tell their providers the truth, nearly half of those who did not disclose their status said it was because they were embarrassed.

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However, the reasoning behind this goes deeper than just shame, says Healton. Tobacco use is strongly associated with those of low socioeconomic status, and patients are usually disclosing to someone of a higher status. “They want to please them and look good in their eyes. It’s a unique doctor-patient relationship.”

There’s also the issue of how the health-care providers react when smokers admit their habit. Sixty-six percent of those who did not disclose their smoking said they wanted to avoid a lecture from the HCP. “A lot of people have been subjected to a kind of rant from their doctors,” says Healton, a former smoker. “I actually think the providers are just as responsible, if not more so, for these results.”

A Pennsylvania hospital’s recent announcement that it would not hire any smokers will not help the social stigma that prevents smokers from getting professional help, either, says Healton.

The crux of the solution, she explains, lies in helping the patient and doctor communicate better. “Health-care providers should learn to better elicit information, and patients need to understand that they can get help from professionals.”

Legacy has some tips for health-care providers on how to approach patients who are smokers. In particular, they should understand that the patient has probably tried to quit many times, and should encourage them not to give up. “To me, the success is that the person got his or her act together and is trying to quit,” Healton says.