How Faith Matters in Battling Smoking Epidemic

04/21/2015 09:55 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Diisney declared it will ban smoking in its movies rated PG-13 and under.

Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced the start of a global fund to help low- and middle-income countries fight legal challenges to their smoking laws.

And France's National Assembly just approved a draft law that would require plain packaging on cigarette packs and would make smoking inside a vehicle with someone under 18 years of age illegal.

There is also another potential powerful tool in addressing a global smoking epidemic: Faith.

New studies are adding to a growing body of evidence that religion may help deter smoking, particularly among marginalized groups that have the greatest health risks.

Consider these findings from around the world:

•Saudi Arabia ranks among the highest in the world in the number of teens and children smoking. A survey of middle-school students found youngsters with strong religious beliefs were significantly more likely to have negative attitudes toward tobacco. Religious beliefs also emerged as strong predictors of students' intention to never take up smoking.
•A study of Latino adults in Texas found that a little more than a third with no religion, compared to 7 percent of regularly attending Protestants, were current smokers. About 15 percent of regularly attending Catholics smoked.
•A door-to-door study of adults in a Brazilian shantytown found 34 percent of people who never attended services were smokers; 13 percent of people who attended once a week used tobacco.

One review of studies on religion and tobacco found most research, while not conclusive, has indicated religion plays a deterrent role.

"Successful control and prevention of tobacco use requires a comprehensive approach that considers a variety of biological, psychological, social and spiritual factors," researchers reported in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. "Furthermore, the relationship between religion and mental health has been well documented, and the evidence concerning the deterrent effect of religion and spirituality on tobacco use is becoming more powerful ."

Faith matters

Inroads have been made, but the tobacco epidemic is not going away.

Tobacco use is estimated to cause nearly 6 million deaths each year. If current trends continue, that toll will rise to more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even in countries such as the United States, where smoking levels have declined dramatically, there are new concerns that E-cigarettes and hookah pipes are attracting young people. E-cigarette use tripled among middle- and high-school students, a new CDC report found.

From a religious perspective, there are few direct scriptural prohibitions of smoking. But many religious leaders in traditions from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to Christianity have interpreted religious teachings promoting care for the body as a reason to lobby against tobacco use.

And faith groups can be powerful allies in anti-smoking efforts, research indicates.

In the United States, frequent church attenders appear to be at the forefront of rejecting smoking. A little more than one in 10 Americans who attend services at least once a week, are smokers; 30 percent who never attend smoke, according to Gallup research.

There are many reasons why faith is important, including the fact religious communities can provide strong, supportive social networks that help promote behavioral norms that contribute to a healthy lifestyle, researchers state. Having positive role models and spending time in religious activities with like-minded peers also makes it less likely young people will be attracted by behaviors considered deviant.

But faith is not always a protective force.

Nuanced approach

Feeling cared for by a divine being is related to reduced stress and better mental health. However, individuals who feel God is judging them or has abandoned them may be more likely to experience stress and depressive symptoms that may lead them to turn to smoking as one way to deal with those issues, studies suggest.

And researchers have found cultural norms accepting tobacco use can have a major influence on religious attitudes in some nations.

The takeaway, many researchers suggest, is that a nuanced approach to religious engagement can be a powerful ally in global anti-smoking efforts.

In general, religious communities, working together with health agencies, can help clear the air to save millions of lives around the world.

The addiction odds change if individuals believe God is by their side.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.