Healthcare workers have been shown to play an important role in tobacco prevention [31
]. Primary care physicians in particular are one of the most powerful groups at lowering the acceptability of smoking in various social contexts, a process often called "denormalization" [34
]. The current study provides information that may be useful in designing smoking prevention and cessation programs that involve physicians in Armenia.
The results of this study demonstrate that many physicians in Armenia, rather than acting as the important resource they could be, may in fact be eroding the effect of tobacco prevention and control efforts by reinforcing the normalization of tobacco through their attitudes and practices. Approximately 55.3% of male physicians were current smokers and 52.7% have smoked in the presence of patients. As for female physicians, 17.3% were current smokers and 13.0% have smoked in the presence of patients. Those who have smoked in the presence of patients may believe that their behavior does not influence others, or that they do not fully understand the harmful effects of smoking. Recall that those who disagreed with statements: "healthcare workers are examples for their patients and the public," "healthcare workers should set a good example by not smoking," and "healthcare workers should regularly ask their patients about their smoking habits," were more likely to be smokers.
Cultural acceptance of smoking in Armenia may help explain the high smoking prevalence among physicians. The current study found smoking prevalence among physicians in Yerevan to be 55.3% in males and 17.3% in females. These results are lower than the WHO recently reported for physicians in Armenia – 80.6% in males and 42% in females [15
]. Compared with the general adult male population in Yerevan, smoking prevalence among physicians is similar [6
]. On the other hand, smoking prevalence is much higher among female physicians compared with the general female population in Yerevan (17.3% vs. 4.3%) [6
]. Furthermore, smoking prevalence among women in Yerevan is approximately four times greater than that in the other provinces of Armenia [5
]. Higher smoking prevalence among female physicians may reflect an attempt to gain greater affluence and liberation from old rural culture. It may also be that tobacco companies are more aggressively targeting women with higher socioeconomic status. It has been shown that among women in India cigarette smoking exists primarily among the urban elite classes of large cosmopolitan cities [35
Studies have shown that physicians have often been at the forefront at quitting smoking [36
]. An older study showed that California physicians who currently smoked decreased from 53% in 1950 to 10% in 1980 [38
]. In comparison, the decrease in American men who smoked cigarettes was from 53% to 38% during the same time period. Two US studies conducted in the 1990s found that physicians displayed considerably lower smoking prevalence than the general population [39
]. These studies identified smoking prevalence among physicians at 3%-4%, which is consistent with physicians having healthier lifestyle behaviors than the general population [41
Healthcare professionals can help patients stop smoking by ensuring that counseling and pharmacological therapy is available [42
], and actually counseling them about quitting [33
]. A study involving the Women Physicians' Health Study in 1993 found that practicing a specific health habit (e.g., not smoking) significantly increased the likelihood of counseling patients about that habit [41
]. Patients also find physicians more believable and motivating if the physician discloses their own positive health practice [41
Only a minority of Armenian physicians felt well prepared to counsel patients to quit smoking. Those who did feel well prepared to assist patients to quit smoking were more likely to agree with true statements about smoking; those who felt unprepared to assist patients to quit smoking were less likely to agree with true statements about smoking. Hence, perceived preparedness to assist patients to quit smoking is associated with knowledge about adverse health outcomes previously linked to smoking.
Physicians who do not smoke are more likely than those who do to provide advice to quit [43
]. Nurses can also have an impact on lowering smoking among patients [32
]. If only half of all nurses worldwide helped one patient per month quit smoking, more than 12 million smokers would overcome their addictions every year [14
]. Evaluation of the smoking behaviors of nurses and their tendency toward counseling patients in Armenia is an area for further study.
Social policies aimed at controlling cigarette smoking can also have a significant impact on smoking rates [44
]. Legislation passed by Armenia's parliament and adopted in January 2005 increased fines and outlawed smoking in schools, on public transportation, and in other public places. Smoking was also banned for teenagers under 16. The legislation further prohibited smoking in cultural institutions and at sporting events. Tobacco products without warnings on the dangers of smoking were destroyed. Healthcare workers can have a leadership role to play in supporting such policies.
Physicians in Armenia may not be taking full advantage of windows of opportunity to identify smokers and provide smoking advice. The fact that a minority of physicians indicated that they felt well prepared to assist a patient with a smoking problem, in conjunction with the fact that a majority of male physicians are current smokers and that the smoking prevalence of female physicians is over seven times that of the national prevalence, indicates a need for more developed medical system intervention.
Research is warranted in Armenia to determine the feasibility of smoking prevention interventions. A study targeting the patients of healthcare workers, as well as the population as a whole, would help us understand the potential impact such interventions could have in Armenian society. Such studies could measure the percentage of the population who visit healthcare facilities, how often they do so, and the extent a physician's advice influences patient decisions. Studies could also ascertain whether the physicians would use smoking cessation materials if they were provided, and whether physicians are actively involved in promoting health policy related to smoking prevention and control.
Because of the hierarchical administrative structure of the hospital, it was impossible to obtain direct access to the physicians under study. Therefore, we relied on the hospital administrators to distribute the questionnaire. This could have caused selection bias. This limitation was overcome in part by distributing the same number of surveys to a facility as the number of eligible physicians therein.
Another potential source of bias arises from the response rate. Some of the questionnaires were not distributed to physicians (in a few cases hospital administrators admitted they were unable to distribute all of the questionnaires because some workers were on vacation). In addition, it is possible not everyone filled out the questionnaire once it was received. The completed questionnaire retrieval rate was 78%.
Finally, there is a tendency for individuals to underreport items they consider to cause them to be viewed as deviant or behaving in a socially undesirable way [45
]. It is possible that smoking in front of patients and admitting that one is not prepared to help patients quit smoking might be underreported because the physicians are aware of the adverse health consequences that may result from their behavior. Underreporting may also result if smoking is perceived to be socially unacceptable. Whether underreporting occurred and, if so, the extent of underreporting is unknown.