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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

Map: The Social Influence of Public Smoking

4 Substance

Smoking is addictive, of course. But it’s also contagious. Exposure to others’ smoking—on TV, in the movies, at home and as you pass by on the street—can play a major factor in influencing people to take up the habit. This is what public health researchers call “social contagion.” But there was no concrete way to measure it—until now.

Researchers in New Zealand have come up with a way to measure the social impact of cigarette smoking by mapping smoking visibility on city streets. They collected data on 411 smokers outside bars and restaurants over the course of 28 hours in the city of Wellington. They then created this map with three-dimensional “viewsheds” to show how much visual exposure to smoking you would be likely to experience from any given viewpoint:

Areas on streets with the most bars and restaurants show the heaviest concentration of smoking. This is hardly an “ah ha!” revelation—but the point, researchers say, is that these new mapping technologies could be used by policymakers to make a case for public smoking bans: “[The maps] provide systematic evidence of visual exposure to smoking at particular places that can otherwise only be conveyed by anecdotal statements or by film/video. These viewshed maps are compelling and can be easily absorbed and interpreted by lay audiences.”