This paper considers the symbolic, experiential and institutional basis of the stigmatization of British smokers, particularly in the context of the higher rates of smoking in lower socio-economic status (SES) groups. Interviews based on a free association task were conducted with 40 smokers and non-smokers from higher and lower SES groups. Thematic analysis identified several areas of stigmatization of British smokers by non-smokers: identification of negative aesthetic ‘marks’ of smoking and of smokers as ‘polluters’ who harm others; the display of direct and indirect social disapproval; and the association of smokers with out-groups such as single mothers. Higher SES smokers tend to challenge the ‘facts’ on which this stigmatization is based, whereas lower SES smokers internalize the stigmatized aspersions. Recent British Tobacco Control campaigns, which play on the negative aesthetic of the smoker and the ‘peril’ which they represent, may exacerbate stigmatization. This may have de-motivating effects on lower SES smokers for reasons explored in the paper. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.