Teen Smoking: a rite of passage?
Edit of a Benson and Hedges cigarette ad from Loaded magazine, December 1996
A well-placed cigarette can make a picture. Hollywood stars in the 50s all the way through to supermodels in the 90s were, and still are, successful at making smoking look sensual and sophisticated. And even though many people would be hesitant to outright say smoking is ‘cool’; even if subconsciously, people know it.
But with tobacco being linked to a shorter life span, lung disease and cancer among other health complications, in the last twenty years alone smokers in the UK have decreased by more than half. And as of May 2020, the British government is cracking down even harder, as UK smokers will no longer be able to buy menthol cigarettes.
The ban comes as part of an effort to prevent young people in particular from smoking, and to reduce the number of people taking up the habit.
With 9 out of 10 smokers starting as teenagers, it’s no wonder the government is targeting young people with newtobacco laws. It’s also no surprise to me, as a young person, that youngsters starting up smoking is still an issue.
Even amid a health-obsessed society, where fast-food and cheap cider have been replaced with vegan croissants and artisan coffee, for some reason; teens still smoke.
After my first time smoking, I made it as much of a regular occurrence as I could. I didn’t really like it much, but 15-year-old me just felt a little more together whilst I held the badly rolled cigarette my friends frowned at.
I had suddenly made new friends with older people from school. People who hadn’t dared even look at me before we bonded over a smoke at a house party. I didn’t at the time, care about the risks and dangers of smoking and why it’s a horrible, dirty habit I’d regret picking up. I was hooked to the thrill of doing something my mum would disapprove of so strongly, and I loved even more that it generated a reaction from my peers.
Fast forward to my first year of university, and smoking areas of dingy Peckham bars only exhilarated me more. By then, cigarettes had become a part of the night out routine:
Finally get into the bar, buy a drink, chat, dance for a bit, go outside for a fag before buying the next can of overpriced and lukewarm Red Stripe. Repeat.
Even though every single time I was cold, and my feet hurt from standing for so long, I loved being outside with my new friends, butting into strangers' conversations to ask if I could borrow their lighter. It was exactly these interactions that at the time, made it worth smoking.
I now no longer smoke, and I know I’m not the only twenty-something year old that has casually stopped smoking.
I wonder, is this how smoking works, then? The whole ‘giving it a go’ business. Is it a rite of passage? An enigma that every adult should try to understand, beginning in the earliest years of their adulthood, swiftly dropping the habit before it can do any real damage?
For many young people, including myself in the past, it’s simply about being ‘sensible’ with the habit.
“I always remember telling myself I’d never be that person who stands out in the rain by themselves, just to have a cigarette.” Hanna*, a twenty-year-old student and occasional smoker, told me.
A Benson and Hedges cigarette ad from Loaded magazine, December 1996
“You know, you grow up and say you’ll never smoke, but then you get older and well, you just do. For me, moderation is everything.” Hanna continues.
“I said from the beginning that if I smoked in a moderate way, I could enjoy it for a good few years. It’s the same with the fact that I live in a highly polluted city and I enjoy it for now, but I won’t stay here forever.
My brain definitely associates it with pleasure.” Hanna says when I ask her plainly, why she continues to smoke, despite not quite being addicted to cigarettes yet.
“There’s an element of addiction to why young people smoke of course, but in a lot of cases I’d say addiction isn’t the main driving force. There’s lots of reasons why I personally enjoy it. To me, it’s more of a social thing.”
Socially smoking, usually after a few drinks, is something most people have, or likely will engage in at some point in their life. And according to a study of social smokers in the UK, young people aged 18-25 are the most common age group found to engage in social smoking.
“What’s nicest about smoking are the things around it. There’s routine, there’s conversation,” Hanna goes on.
“I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to nicotine, but I guess I’ve made that neurological link between having a cigarette and feeling calmer, better, relaxed - the dopamine release. I do enjoy it and I do crave it, but I don’t need it.”
Like for Hanna, it’s making sure the habit never reaches a level of addiction. Stopping when due time, to ensure it can’t result in any drastic effects. And there’s the reasonable consideration that there are so many other things that are done daily, that can have incremental effects on future health. This includes living in a polluted place, drinking alcohol, diet. Even just by leaving the house, there are endless things that could go wrong which can affect your very living.
Essentially, it’s a ‘we’re all going to die anyway’ attitude that many young people seem to adopt when justifying smoking. And of the overall British population, young people aged between 18-24 are the most likely to smoke than any other age group.
So, despite being well aware of the risks and negative side effects that come with smoking, why do we still do it?
“There are undoubtedly social elements to why people continue smoking,” Tom*, a former smoker from the age of 14 to 20, now 22, tells me. “You kind of want to do it in the first place so that you’re involved. It’s more you do it in fear of missing out - not because you feel pressure to do it.” He says.
With young people most vulnerable to peer pressure, they are also more likely to engage in ‘risky behaviour’ such as smoking, and past studies have pointed to peer influence as an important cause of teen smoking. But it seems that this isn’t necessarily true to all young smokers today.
“I think there’s a huge stigma to be had around smoking and particularly young people who do it,” Tom continues. “I think everyone these days is very good at just respecting personal choice.
In terms of pressure to take up smoking,” Tom goes on, “I’d say if it’s happening anywhere, it’s within workplaces. [Smoking] legitimizes frequent breaks that aren’t usually allowed. I experienced this especially working within hospitality, where there tend to be a lot of young part-timers or students like I was at the time.”
In the UK, there are no workers’ rights to smoking breaks. However, going for several smoke breaks on a shift in most professions is generally accepted without a question. And according to data published by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), the UK workforce alone smokes roughly 74 million cigarettes per day, making up a huge percentage of the average 15% of Britons who smoke.
“There’s definitely an element of this in smoking areas on nights out, too.” Tom acknowledges. “It’s a completely understandable reason to go outside and take a break, or get some relief from an intense environment, and there’s no better way to do this than over a cig with your friends.”
Ever since the smoking ban of 2007, meaning it became illegal to smoke in any pub, restaurant, nightclub, among other public places in the UK, smoking areas have become the place to be on a night out.
Smoking with others is a huge part of the routine and enjoyment of it.” Tom adds. “You could be with people you don’t know very well or even never met before - but I think with smoking, in those situations it gives you a focus, and from that somehow everyone is at ease.”
A section from the cover of Loaded magazine’s December 1996 issue with Denis Leary
Like Tom mentions, smoking is known for its ability to change atmospheres and relieve awkwardness. Studies have even suggested that some young smokers use these powers as a strategy to climb the social ladder; with many believing that smoking promotes social status.
Lucy*, a twenty-year-old who considers herself a social smoker, understands why as a young person, it can be seen as appealing or something ‘cool’ to do.
“Well, it’s being rebellious. I think that’s why [smoking] can be considered as something cool to do.” She tells me. “Coolness has always been associated with people who step outside of the ‘white lines’, and that’s what you’re doing as a smoker. It’s actively putting your health at risk and resisting authority. You’re never going to have somebody who’s a ‘goody-two-shoes’, who follows all the rules be considered cool. That’s just not what our understanding of cool is.”
In 1996, research exploring young people’s opinions on smoking images in youth magazines, found that “the art of being cool involves looking cool, without trying to look cool.” Ultimately, it’s the element of not caring what people think, that glamourizes smoking.
But historically, it hasn’t always been ‘cool’ or glamorous to smoke. At the height of smoking during the post-war era of the 50s and 60s, no one gave it a second thought. It was just what people did. The general public didn’t yet know about the health complications modern society associates with smoking today, so, as commonplace - it simply couldn’t be something rebellious.
“I think that as an activity, it’s inevitably going to be considered cool, because it adheres to the characteristics of coolness.” Says Lucy. “What makes it cool, is the rebellion of smoking despite knowing the consequences. I don’t think I can objectively answer whether smoking being ‘cool’ has had an effect on me personally doing it, but I’m sure in many ways it has.” She adds.
“I guess yes, a part of me sees smoking as cool, but I wouldn’t say in an overt sense. I’ve never thought – ‘oh, I want to do it because all the cool kids are doing it’. It just sort of is the case that most of the people that you would consider ‘cool’, do smoke.” Lucy confesses.
“The main thing, really, is that [smoking] is just something I enjoy doing. I couldn’t tell you any one reason why I do it or like it, apart from that I just do. And at the end of the day, perhaps it’s down to social conditioning, but even the practise of holding the cigarette is attractive. You can’t deny it. Like, whether it’s a picture of a glamourous woman in the 50s, or it’s my mate sitting outside a café with a coffee, smoking a cigarette - it just does look fucking cool.”
So, whether it’s because it’s addictive, cool, or just some good old-fashioned rebellion - it’s unlikely the reason why young people continue to smoke can be pinpointed to one thing alone.
Even with the popularity of the habit in younger social circles, according to NHS research, there has been a steady decline in young people smoking since 1996. And at this rate, it’s believed that there’ll be no smokers left in London by 2042. In fact, by 2050, it’s been predicted that we may even have an entirely smoke-free UK.
But no part of me wishes I hadn’t tried it. Nor do I regret the money I spent on those packs of cigarettes, or the hours spent freezing my tits off in smoking areas on Saturday nights/ Sunday mornings. If anything, I’m glad that I did.
I see the cigarette, with its endless health risks, annoying cravings, and atmosphere-changing abilities; as dangerous, impressive and multifaceted.
The habit, in a way, symbolises growing up. To smoke or not is one of the first ‘adult’ decisions that can be made as a young person, and with that, comes one of the first tastes of independence. I think, naturally, as long as both cigarettes and teenagers exist separately, the ritual of smoking will always take place.
*all names of interviewees have been changed