Smoking and Overeating — When Society Fights Back With Scorn

One interesting question is whether weight stigma is the equivalent of smoking stigma. The answer depends on whom you ask, and what area of human activity is being looked at. Smokers and obese people both face opposition to their lifestyles, no matter how involuntary their conditions might be. In both cases, two major dynamics are at work — morality and methodology.

Designated villains

When challenged to rid itself of harmful behavior, society has always had its ways. In the oldest of old days, a wrongdoer might be ostracized for a certain time. Everybody would just ignore the person and pretend that he or she wasn’t there. For repeat offenses, the response would escalate to banishment from the village. There was no big city to run away to, and the nearest settlement hated strangers. Painful starvation and lonely death were real possibilities. The incentives to conform were strong.

Nowadays, society has to cope with smokers and compulsive overeaters whose very existence some folks find unbearable. An offender is banished in symbolic ways; she or he is recategorized, deprecated, removed from consideration as a worthy human. On moral grounds, the zeitgeist seems to feel equally justified in denouncing smokers and the obese. Some factions are quite punitive toward them.

Three shades of degradation

There is a hierarchy of socially acceptable addictions. When it comes to compulsive overeating, “society” is basically schizophrenic. On the one hand, it allows every possible thing to encourage eating and lots of it, at all times and places. Consumption is joviality and bonhomie, mixed in with precious family and cultural values, and a whole slew of other emotional baggage. At the same time, the end results of all that consumption, the lumpy carcasses and broken bathroom scales, are mocked.

In the mid-range of acceptability, alcohol is king. Millions of people are enslaved by it, at a monumental social cost, yet somehow the appetite for it never seems to slacken. Alcohol, while not always totally acceptable, is tolerated. People who like to drink tend to congregate, while non-drinkers may hang out with other non-drinkers, or not hang out at all.

On the social acceptability scale, smoking is definitely the lowest. For a while now, it has been politically correct to dump on smokers. They are the one category of humanity it is perfectly okay to despise. The critics of obesity, although not shy about expressing to the world the depth of their scorn, are still a bit more reserved, at least for the present. At least, among grownups. But not even all grownups.


The practice of stigmatization has so many facets, only a couple of them are mentioned here. Obese people are encouraged to make spectacles of themselves on TV, where they are looked down on both for being fat, and for floundering around under stage lights, sweating for the camera.

We mentioned that “society” now finds it easy to blame and hate smokers, even to the point of directly confronting and denouncing them. Anti-smokers who are less brave will make their point by uttering little coughs in the direction of the smoker.

Although there are some startling exceptions, even those who vehemently object to smokers are not as likely to give an overweight person a hard time, in public, in a demonstrative way. The aggressions tend to be of the indirect variety, like taking pictures of a large person to send to friends. Usually, dislike of the obese, at least among grownups, is expressed with a bit of discretion.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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