By Amy Sokolow
Smoking kills. We all know that. Presumably that is a given among modern-day youths after decades of research has drawn direct relationships between smoking and lung cancer. This does not even consider the other consequences such as yellowed teeth, damaged gums, and brittle skin, among others. In my American education, these facts were drilled into us like algebra equations. Smoking has become demonized in American society, and No Smoking zones litter our streets, campuses, and public spaces. Almost no one in my immediate social circle smokes even occasionally at home. Therefore, the times I left the U.S.— and the insular bubbles of my hometown and my small liberal arts college— I was shocked to see youths smoking everywhere. Otherwise healthy-looking people smoked on the Tel Aviv beaches, outside of Dublin pubs, or while sipping café con leches on a Madrid terrace.
Now, I notice the frequency and relative ubiquity of smoking during my study abroad experience in Amsterdam. From the day I met my International Student Network (ISN) group, I constantly witnessed them excusing themselves from bars to have a smoke together. Even in Vondelpark, where we sat one sweaty, sunny afternoon for hours, the smokers of the group each had a cigarette or two, others more. Once classes started, I found our ten-minute breaks to be longer than expected, only to realize that they were smoke breaks.
“Why would young, well-educated college students willingly partake in such a bad habit?” I asked myself. From an outside perspective, smoking does not seem to provide a noticeable “high” like other unhealthy habits do, such as alcohol or other drugs. Why, then, is smoking still so prevalent? As someone potentially interested in pursuing a career in health communications, solving this puzzle would be the Holy Grail of this field.
With this in mind, I set out to uncover insights into why this habit persists, despite science and policy advising otherwise. I asked: what factors contribute to the reasons why young people studying in Amsterdam smoke, and what are their justifications for doing so, despite awareness of the associated health risks? I initially theorized that the answers would be evenly split between those who smoke for social connections, maybe to “look cool” (though they probably would not readily admit that), and those who are genuinely addicted to smoking, and unable or unwilling to quit. Insights on the motivations behind smokers’ behavior and reasons for doing so is valuable information for educators, health policymakers, and parents of smokers. I would like to note that while I generally do not agree with smoking, I entered this process with an open mind and aim to shed light on this habit from an unbiased perspective.
Let’s Consult the Experts
While many young people try their first cigarette as teens, the more interesting question is why they continue smoking past this phase of their lives, sometimes well into their twenties. This transition from the adolescent years to the next phase in life is “emerging adulthood,” according to Jeffrey Arnett (2004). “The rise in the ages of entering marriage and parenthood, the lengthening of higher education, and prolonged job instability during the twenties reflect the development of a new period of life for young people… a period of identity exploration” (Arnett, 2004: 4). Due to shifting demographic and structural changes in young people’s lives, they are suspended longer and longer between a time in which they are not responsibility-free adolescents, but are also not yet beholden to bosses, or spouses. This gives them agency to make decisions regarding their own health and well-being without as much judgment, secrecy, or scrutiny as other age demographics face. Through interviews, I realized youth, and the associated absence of adulthood and its responsibilities, was essential to the continuity of their smoking habits.
What else, then, contributes to these people’s decisions to smoke? In a meta-analysis by Tara Mantler (2012) on youth’s perceptions of smoking, multiple studies are cited that ask this very question. Themes emerge that the young smokers surveyed feel immune to the harm of the smoke. They believe smoking-related deaths are less likely, and that quitting is easier, than nonsmokers believe. They also underestimate the number of illnesses and deaths caused by smoking. Furthermore, young people have varied reasons why they began smoking. Many cited social pressures from their friends to try and continue smoking, and wanting to “look cool,” particularly among males. Importantly, social ties formed and strengthened while smoking are also regarded as a highly valued aspect of the habit (Mantler, 2012). The Mantler analysis was told from a purely North American pool of data, but these findings apply globally. Another study by Hamilton and Hassan (2010) focuses on a European population, with similar results. As explained in the article, “for some participants, smoking is seen as a conspicuous consumption act associated with coolness” (Hamilton & Hassan, 2010: 1108). Smoking initially attracted the participants out of a desire for inclusion. This study goes a step further to assert that smokers do feel burdened for being smokers, because they feel the media, especially anti-smoking ads, unfairly portrays them in a judgmental light (Hamilton & Hassan, 2010: 1111-1112). Perhaps this is part of the allure of smoking in the first place: as an act of rebellion, since approximately 80-90% of smokers start smoking before age eighteen, while still under their parents’ roofs (Sharecare.com).
Finally, a study by Mercken et al. (2009) delves deeper into the details of how social networks form around one’s smoking habits, particularly in Europe. The authors contend that there is a statistically significant correlation between participants’ smoking behavior and their social networks’ behaviors. (Ibid.: 1510). Additionally, certain countries’ respondents, the Netherlands included, revealed correlations between respondents’ drinking and smoking behavior and that of friends, parents, or siblings. However, the study is quick to note that “in all countries selection based on smoking behavior was more important than peer influence in explaining similarity in smoking status between friends” (Ibid.: 1512). The authors explain this, writing that peer pressure is less important than previously imagined, and earlier-formed smoking attitudes are more important in habit formation (Ibid.: 1513).
With this information, I aimed to dissect this issue from an ethnographic perspective. Youth culture scholars say youth is a time of exploration, experimentation, identity and social network formation, and personal boundary establishment. How do social networks, worries of “looking cool,” stigmas, and other potential factors, play into this narrative? I aimed to discover where the seemingly counterintuitive habit of smoking fits into this equation.
For this research process, I began by consulting literature about the topic of youths’ motivations to smoke to gain insight into the types of questions I should be asking my interviewees. As someone disconnected from this world, I needed to conduct this literature review beforehand to determine how to ask these questions. I also began with observation, which has continued throughout my time in Amsterdam. There are many occasions when I have witnessed smokers firsthand in their environment, such as when hanging out with my ISN group at bars, walking around the University of Amsterdam campus, and crossing the courtyard of my local residence. This allowed me to view smoking as a social phenomenon outside of individually cited factors, because I assumed that, for many, smoking is primarily a social activity. During these observations, I noted when the people would leave to go smoke outdoors, if and how cigarettes and lighters were shared, and how the conversations flowed during these moments.
The primary component of my research was interviews. Externally, smoking may have a completely different meaning than what is internalized by the smoker him- or herself. Understanding the backstories of those who begin and continue to smoke requires some digging into their life stories: past, present, and future. Throughout our conversations, people’s intonations, body language, pauses, and nervous giggles spoke as loudly as the words they used to explain their feelings toward smoking.
My interviewees were friends I have met while abroad in Amsterdam. Some were from my ISN group, and some were from my American program, CIEE. I did not know people’s particular smoking habits at the outset, but I had seen all of them smoke at some point. Therefore, I defined a “smoker” as someone who uses tobacco products, primarily cigarettes, and has within the last month. However, interviewees self-defined as smokers with varying degrees of readiness.
The interviews took place in coffee shops and common spaces at or near the University of Amsterdam campus, or in the communal kitchen I share with the American students. The interviews were recorded on my iPhone while I took notes, which was especially helpful for recalling body language. These methods combined helped me unearth the deeper significance of a seemingly mundane activity.
Young, Wild, and Free
I remember a sticky August day this semester. I was at a touristy bar with loud music and annoying flashing lights with members of my ISN group. After a while, Toby, who I will discuss later, looked around discontentedly and asked if anyone would like to go out for a smoke. I was not enjoying myself and found it difficult to shout loudly enough to hold a conversation, so we excused ourselves, along with a few others, for a smoke break. I did not smoke, but I witnessed aspects of smoking’s appeal. I was amazed at the intimate atmosphere that formed among us, in stark contrast to the less-than-cozy environment from which we had come. We swapped cigarettes and stories. It was a nice reprieve from the sensory overload of that bar, and upon our return, we were refreshed, cooled down, and more interconnected than before.
This was the initial inspiration behind this project. American health education has made smoking taboo; but through my research, I now realize it has merits that people seek for various reasons. Through in-depth discussions with young smokers from various backgrounds, life experiences, and smoking experience levels, I uncovered common and divergent themes in these individuals’ narratives.
One of the most obvious recurring themes is invincibility and, sometimes, rebellion. Young people, especially men, wanted to state their place as rebels by smoking. Take Miles: a cheeky twenty-five-year-old Brit studying American History at UvA. He and I have clashed over politics, most recently over his proud defense of both Brexit and Donald Trump. His Instagram feed is littered with vintage movie stills, actors, and quotes. His eyes light up when describing his affinity for old-school media and popular culture, citing Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart as icons, and explaining that their constant smoking is “definitely a part of what makes them these, like, cool entities.” He cites the intrinsically linked nature of smoking and art and music. He is “attracted to that seedier subculture… I have this need to be really flippant and agitate people, and that might come under the scope of why I [began smoking]. It’s a bit of a ‘fuck you’ to whoever’s gonna smell me.” He paints the scene of being thirteen and trying his first cigarette, sneaking into the woods during gym class with some friends and being offered one by the “cool guy” of the class, who the teacher scolded for smelling of smoke. Later, he adopts a dreamlike, faraway gaze and a soft tone when painting a vivid image of the romanticism of smoking portrayed by the media. He says all the old movies he watches, and all the musicians he listens to, smoke.
“Smoking is a part of this elusive counter-culture kind of thing—that almost rebellious thing. I think people genuinely look cool with a cigarette in their mouth… it has a very romantic feel about it; probably even more so because we live in a society where it’s so taboo.”
Then, ever the cynic, he adds, “You’re romanticizing the concept of it, and ignoring the harsh reality of being on a respirator.”
Ben, a tall, blonde American from Indiana sporting a man bun and a wry sense of humor, had a similar view on the rebellious nature of cigarettes. When asked about media’s role in his decision to smoke, he quickly acknowledged the close ties. “Smoking looks cool… like it sucks and I wish it didn’t, but like, if you watch Mad Men, or any movie that’s set in the ‘70s or ‘80s, like people are smoking all the time.” Media today is inescapable, with today’s youth constantly plugged into T.V., movies, and music that contain smoking references. Celebrities are photographed smoking, and song lyrics about smoking still dominate the airwaves. These modern-day influences affect youth the same way Brando did in his era.
Tied in with the idea of masculine rebellion is freedom—an ideal upheld by Toby. He is a friendly and articulate twenty-one-year-old Urban Studies major from Germany, who considers himself an “occasional smoker.” When he was sixteen, he tried his first cigarette, and the experience was not particularly eventful. However, the next school year, he spent a year in Minnesota, where he was not allowed to drink, drive, or go out like he could in Germany. He turned to cigarettes as freedom, rebellion, and escapism due to his lack of freedoms in other aspects of his life in the U.S. “When you’re a teenager, it’s [about] being rebellious because everybody tells you not to do it.” Toby, Miles, and Ben expressed views of smoking as rebellion. They saw it as an image enhancer and status builder— a tool to flout authority and emulate their screen heroes. Smoking, to these young men, is the ultimate way of overtly confronting Death, and metaphorically flexing their muscles in its face.
Many of the women I interviewed saw rebellion in more network-centric ways. Smoking became a tool to shrewdly change the dynamics of their social networks. Daphnee was a prime example of this. She is a verbose and affable twenty-two-year-old Master’s student studying neuroscience who identifies as much with her French upbringing as she does with her American college years and D.C.-raised fiancée, and she smokes a pack a day. On the topic of the continuation of youths’ smoking behavior, she notes the role rebellion plays in the adoption of smoking against parents’ wishes and its continuation in our society. She explained,
“It’s like this vicious cycle: your parents smoke… and there’s a previous generation’s testimony of smoking, and our generation doesn’t want to smoke, but then they find themselves in the same situation… you want to rebel against your parents and do something stupid… and the cycle starts again.”
For young women, smoking is also used to rebel with friends, and strengthen social ties in the process. Daphnee describes her second experience smoking as a fourteen-year-old as taking place under a bridge “where homeless people would stay during the night.” She and her friend went there during lunch and smoked three cigarettes in two hours. Besides loving the buzz she felt for the rest of the day, she emphasized that she felt “really cool” from smoking cigarettes with this friend. Feminine rebellion is less about authority and image like it is for men. Women understand how powerful the image of a young smoker is; they use it to manipulate their social networks. They draw friends in or create familial distance with smoking to a much greater extent than men.
Both genders described romanticized views of smoking stemming from its natural pairing with travel culture. I spent a summer in Israel and a semester in Amsterdam, and have witnessed this travel culture among my social circle. Miles traveled in his early twenties through Vietnam and Southeast Asia. He smoked almost constantly in Vietnam because cigarettes were cheap, but also because “you can smoke inside, you can smoke outside, there’s very much a sort of culture of smoking, because it encourages you to smoke. It’s all around, and it’s almost like… you’re kind of assimilating into the culture.” He described the “backpacker subculture” of liberated young people traveling in groups to “discover themselves.” Similarly, Gudrun, a sweet, bubbly twenty-three-year-old Faroese literature student at UvA, spent a gap year traveling through India, Cambodia and Thailand. She described the “backpacker vibe” she encountered on the trip, saying people are “just hanging out all the time, drinking, smoking.” Backpacking is an obvious statement of striking out on one’s own and avoiding adult responsibilities, like working. Smoking parallels backpacking in these ways, and are thus a natural pairing. Youth crave knowledge and understanding, and indirectly, smoking is a way of “learning through doing,” and immersing oneself in the local culture.
Being in Amsterdam has a similar effect on all the interviewees. Each of the seven interviewees said that being abroad in Amsterdam has caused an increase in his or her smoking habits, citing reasons such as taking pass/fail courses, partying more, and the being strongly influenced by other study abroad students. Daphnee even mentioned essentially becoming an “alcoholic” in Amsterdam, which greatly increased her smoking. Gudrun said she parties significantly more than she does at home, even on Mondays and Tuesdays, which increases her smoking. Study abroad offers a suspended reality, where usual rules do not apply. When everyone feels this way, the effect is amplified. The students normalize smoking in Amsterdam for each other. Travel’s allure, whether backpacking or studying abroad, is powerful for these young people, and smoking is naturally wrapped up in this experience.
Of course, smoking is more than just image and idealism. It also is an integral part of people’s social lives. Many explained the fluctuations in smoking habits depending on their stage of life and their social circles. Furthermore, almost all the people interviewed stressed repeatedly that they do not smoke alone, nor crave a cigarette when alone. For them, smoking was purely a social experience, complementing a typical night spent with friends in a bar or at a party. Miles talked me through the evolution of his smoking stages, from when he was smoking heavily in university in England with his ten chain-smoking flat mates, to his clockwork-like smoke breaks at work while bartending. He then stopped completely while working a white collar, full-time job, and resumed smoking immediately upon his arrival in Amsterdam and return to student status. Gudrun described her life stages similarly. At first, she rarely smoked in high school, then more frequently on her gap year due to friends’ influences, and now about every weekend in Amsterdam when she goes out with her friends who also smoke. Especially the Americans I interviewed described how strongly their circumstances affect their smoking habits. Ben, twenty, Ellie, a twenty-one-year-old Tulane senior sporting a nose ring, and John, a twenty-one-year-old lacrosse-playing Oberlin student— everyone said they have significantly increased their smoking in Amsterdam, but feel the habit is due to their surroundings, not an addiction. None of them called themselves “smokers,” although I had ascribed this label to all three of them prior to our interviews.
Alcohol and Coffee
This brings me to the role of alcohol, which is more pivotal than I had previously imagined. Daphnee, who views everything through a neurological lens, theorizes that the effects are physiological: “Alcohol is a ‘downer,’ and the nicotine in the cigarettes is an ‘upper’ so they counteract each other.” She said there is an emotional component too, because beer, the outdoor cold air, and cigarettes play well together due to both past positive associations and complementary sensory experiences. Gudrun goes out on Mondays, grabs beers with friends and smokes. She doesn’t like the taste of cigarettes much, so she mostly smokes when drunk. She mentioned a time recently when she did not smoke with friends who were smoking. “It is definitely a drinking thing for me,” she explained.
John was the most adamant interviewee that he is only a “drunk smoker,” as he called himself. John began smoking (besides the occasional cigarillo or dip in high school) his freshman year of college… and does not remember it. The details are hazy, but he assumed he was with members of his lacrosse team, and it was probably late fall. As he nonchalantly described, “I was probably really drunk, and drunk cigs are just kind of a thing.” He stressed that he would not smoke without friends. He has smoked when he was less drunk in the past, but he does not love the taste. He summed up his relationship with cigarettes as, “If I stopped drinking, I would stop smoking.” The other American college students I interviewed, Ellie and Ben, expressed similar views on their habit. Ellie explained that her first cigarette at sixteen was not a particularly enjoyable experience, but once she started drinking more in college, smoking became semi-regular. Ben explained, “my decision-making is pretty spotty when I’m drunk,” making him crave a cigarette.
Toby also partially explained the alcohol-cigarette connection as a sensory one. He heard that people who enjoy bitter flavors like whiskey and dark chocolate are more likely to be smokers, and he loves both. Miles applied similar logic, and explained that friends’ hop preferences in beers affect smoking frequency, with the friends who like hoppier beers smoking the least. He says cigarettes pair well with the tastes of coffee, dark chocolate, and, of course, beer. He also explains it another way: “[Smoking] feels good, but it feels way better with a beer.”
The associations between cigarettes and coffee are also deeply rooted in some interviewees’ lives. Toby said he will often meet up with friends for coffee and smoke together. Miles similarly said that a period in his life was characterized by going for coffee with “a certain bunch of friends… and it would always be very specific times where you might not even feel like you want [a cigarette] necessarily… but as soon as you enter into that situation, and all the variables are kind of aligned, you become, ‘Shit, I need a cigarette.’” Additionally, coffee does have a “romantic idea behind it,” pointing to “the massive culture of coffee and cigarettes,” which spawned a movie of the same title, inspired by, as he depicts, “sitting in a café in Europe, sipping a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette… I like the idea of it.” People ignore the potential long-term harm smoking may cause because they tell themselves, “Fuck it, this is class!”
Connecting with Others and with Oneself
All the interviewees said people’s changing social environments affected the ebb and flow of their smoking habits. But how did smoking aid in the formation of social groups, and short- and long-term friendship formation?
Many cited the direct influence of one person or a small group of friends who drastically increased one’s smoking habits. John mentioned smoking the most during his time abroad when he met with one college friend who normally smokes frequently. Daphnee mentioned one friend who caused a rapid increase of her own smoking habits when she was in high school. Ironically, Gudrun mentioned being influenced by Daphnee to smoke more, along with her Faroese friends, her Icelandic university friends, and her international friend group in Amsterdam, as opposed to her Danish high school friends, who did not smoke much with her. Ellie especially spoke of her college roommate and best friend at Tulane who smoked heavily and they would smoke every few days. At the time of the interview, she had not smoked in almost two weeks.
Furthermore, these interviewees said smoking while going out is a great way to have substantive conversations and build connections while at a noisy venue. Ellie said that asking someone for a lighter at a party “presents a situation for people to talk.” Toby echoed and expanded upon that idea. He said,
“Through smoking, you get to know people easily… when you’re partying, you dance and listen to music and that’s one thing, but also at uni you could be standing in the ‘smoker’s corner’ with your professor or someone you would never have a random conversation with… and you can just chat with people for two minutes asking them for a lighter… that’s what I like best about [smoking].”
Gudrun similarly explained, “you get to know people better if you smoke with them outside,” and said she picked up smoking again abroad to meet people. She painted an image of her favorite “extra cozy” thing: crisp cool weather, beer, good company, and a cigarette. Daphnee said she has created her social networks through asking people for lighters and smoking with them, both at Colorado College and in Amsterdam. This helped her bond with fellow international students in both environments. She said her friends in her Masters’ program now are “the smokers,” as distinct from the non-smokers.
I accompanied Toby and Gudrun on smoke breaks in the past simply to escape loud parties, and they seemed infinitely more at ease outside than in whatever noisy, sweaty bar we were in. The conversations flowed more freely and at a normal speaking volume, and jokes were funnier because they did not need to be repeated so everyone could hear. For many young smokers, smoking is a way of both initiating and sustaining social ties. They are in the most social period of their lives. Partying is a challenging atmosphere in which to forge meaningful connections. Smoking is a tool allows partiers to make and sustain friendships while out. It also serves as an excuse to strike up a conversation anywhere and expand their ever-growing and evolving social networks as they navigate new social scenes.
Beyond the interpersonal bonds that are formed, some smokers described deeper intrapersonal strengthening from smoking. Ellie and John mentioned a relaxing quality to smoking which serves to calm their nerves at times. Toby used even deeper, more expressive language when describing his habits. He struggled to put the meaningful feeling into words.
“It’s just two minutes, but you stop what you’re doing… We’re all really busy, and think a lot, and do a lot of stuff, but it’s a small moment where you get a real break, stop whatever you’re doing, and enjoy the moment. I wouldn’t call it meditation, but it goes into that direction… [you] take your time to roll your cigarette and smoke it… you’re totally in the moment.”
Daphnee had, by far, the deepest and most personal relationship with cigarettes, and smokes the most, out of all the interviewees. Her habits first increased considerably when she studied in Hong Kong in high school. She experienced social isolation, and cigarettes provided her comfort. She even has a name for it: “Daphnee time.” She explained her mental dialogue: “‘I cannot stay in my room right now; I need to be away from people… and I need something to comfort me’… but it was really just a distraction.” It continues today. She told me that “‘Daphnee time’ always opens with a cigarette” and she does not know how to begin this time without one. “I don’t have to talk, I don’t have to move, I can just breathe in and breathe out. It’s almost meditative in a way.” After thirty minutes of conversation, she revealed that she suffers from ADHD, and that it is not treated as a clinical disorder in her home country, France, so she could not procure Adderall. She revealed that
“From the first cigarette I ever had, I noticed how much more calmer and chill it made me, and it really facilitated all my social interactions and even my internal reactions with myself; to have your mind for the first time ever stop racing, you know? I started becoming funny with people and not just this weirdo who was talking about random shit… [smoking is] my Adderall.”
After not smoking for a couple weeks, people would “get this look in their eyes” that made her think they perceived her as “weird” and too scatterbrained in conversation, jumping between topics. Smoking for her is meditation, mindfulness, medication and social facilitation in a profound way.
Negatives and the Future
Smoking is not all positives. Every interviewee listed reasons why he or she does not like smoking, including smaller concerns like yellowed teeth, dark eye rings, increased susceptibility to colds, some shortness of breath—particularly after a heavy night of smoking, the smell on clothes and in hair, accentuated hangovers, and general tiredness and laziness. People also mentioned some strained social ties from smoking. Toby, Daphnee, Gudrun and John all named smoking as a source of tension in their romantic relationships, citing reasons ranging from the smell and taste to the financial impacts of smoking in the case of heavy smokers like Gudrun’s ex and Daphnee. Most of the interviewees hide their habits from their families, although many of them said they had family members who smoked, or have even died from smoking. Some also have friends who judge their habits negatively, which can cause divides between smokers and nonsmokers, which can change by that day’s choice to smoke or not. Ultimately, judgment from others was a minor concern, hardly mentioned by the interviewees until I asked.
Interestingly, Ellie, among others, flippantly responded to my question about the negatives by chuckling while saying, “the fact that it destroys my body?” though I expected this to be the top serious answer. Some mentioned the chemicals they know are in cigarettes, with an ironically cheery tone. They all know smoking is not something to aspire to, but they continue the habit anyway. In weighing the significance of these three factors, the physical short-term effects are perhaps the most-cited, then the long-term effects, then social stigma. Young people’s sense of invincibility is apparent in their dismissive tones about consequences, and even those who do not smoke often avoid pressuring their friends to quit. Youth’s pretense of everlasting health is powerful.
Ultimately, Daphnee was most affected by smoking, which was unsurprising considering how much she smokes and how intertwined her emotions are with smoking. She said first that smoking causes her to have a negative outlook at times because smokers tend to “bitch” due to the cold outside, and laugh less because smoking and laughing simultaneously is difficult. Throughout the interview, she descended deeper and deeper into self-evaluation, and visibly struggled to vocalize previous issues while still battling them today. She listed the most severe physical effects from smoking, beyond the scope of those above. Her college rugby team yelled at her to push herself because she was often short of breath. Beyond this, the mind games smoking plays on her seemed impossibly difficult to bear. She said, “Every single smoker in the whole world could tell you the meaning of each cigarette they have throughout the day,” then paused and whispered to herself “God, that is so sad. That’s like the saddest thought I’ve ever had” before trailing off and whimpering, almost in tears. She was adamant that she will die of cancer, leaving her fiancé a widower and her future children motherless, despite repeated failed attempts to quit, including five in the last month. She must budget cigarette money into her budget because she spends €1,725/year (and three hours/day) on cigarettes. (She tracks it through an app called Smoke Free, which is designed to help smokers quit.) She constantly fears cancer from small aches. She ranted about her hatred for smoking, exclaiming, “There are fucking sparkles that come out of the cigarette because of the tar… I can see that I’m smoking fucking chemicals… you see that then two seconds later you have a cigarette in your mouth again… smoking is the worst shit ever invented,” which she exclaimed repeatedly. She described her addiction as combating cognitive dissonance: body against mind. For a young person trying to establish her core being, smoking is a major roadblock. She relies on cigarettes heavily to socialize, and the threat of this crutch disappearing terrifies her, as do the physical effects of smoking. She is desperately trying to formulate her social, emotional, academic, and romantic identity while engaged in a constant battle with cigarettes’ inescapable presence, physical and psychological influence, and looming threat of an early demise.
As for everyone else’s future? No one foresaw smoking for long. In fact, most subjects did not even identify as smokers at the start of the interview, but some changed their perspective after I asked them to analyze their habits from a bird’s eye view. Miles, after realizing he has smoked intermittently for over a decade, pondered, “Shit… maybe I am a smoker.” However, everyone said that once they have a family, or stop partying so much, or start working, they will stop smoking.
Gudrun, Toby, and Miles said smoking when you are young is “cool,” but when you are older, it is seen as “childish,” or “teenage bullshit,” as Toby called it. John actually called himself a child, saying that once he reaches “maturity level,” he will stop (as opposed to quit, which both he and Ellie made clear because they did not see themselves as addicted). The smoking will end for most of them once partying— and by extension, youth— ends.
Whether a drunk smoker, social smoker, circumstantial smoker, or classically addicted smoker, each of them has a unique perception of smoking in his or her life. Smoking is rebellious or a capitulation to peer pressure, a way to socialize or a way to retreat, a pump-up or a wind-down, a non-identifier or one’s universe. Smoking has a stronghold in youths’ lives and in society, and will not disappear anytime soon. The cycle exists: parents warn of the dangers of smoking, which causes children to rebel, and the cycle starts again. This process extends to alcohol, tattoos, weed, premarital sex, and many more traditionally frowned-upon behaviors, depending on the cultural context. It is dangerous, and therefore exciting, and it is a part of growing up and exploring one’s identity. Smoking initially seemed a senseless activity. However, many drew comparisons to eating poorly or binge drinking. These are facets of youth, yes, but also of an enjoyable life (in moderation). Youth crave friendships, self-understanding, independence, and fun. Smoking is a temporary means to these ends. Besides, young people are invincible, right?
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