The crowd cheers. "Thank you!" yells Maja Ivarson, lead singer of the Swedish band The Sounds. The tall blonde struts across the stage in tight leather pants and takes a moment to light a cigarette from the guitarist.
"If ya don’t smoke, you should! It makes ya look cool," she shouts as the next song starts up.
She’s mocking herself, since the band chain-smokes throughout the set, but as my friends and I dance and yell, I can’t help but think, damn, she’s right.
Though I don’t smoke, what she said got me wondering. Yeah, cigarettes are just awful for you, but honestly, there’s something about their attractive, rebellious image that emanates "cool."
Despite all the information out there about the risks of smoking (such as cancer, heart disease and impotence) I’ve noticed an increase in smoking in youth and pop culture, particularly in the art and music scenes. So while the numbers may be going down nationally (according to a 2003 survey, down 6 percent from 1997), smoking seems more and more popular among my friends and other teens I encounter. More and more of my friends’ blog pictures are of them posing with cigarettes. Though I can’t think of a valid reason to smoke, I wonder why others do. Is it really just for the glamour, or is there something else that compels teens to turn a blind eye to large warning labels on their cigarette packs?
"I began smoking because I was hanging with a really intellectual crowd when I was in 11th grade, all of whom smoked," said 18-year-old Brian Lehrer, a former student from my school, Harvard-Westlake, who now attends the University of British Columbia in Canada. "Smokers are a community that thrives particularly on generosity and intellectualism."
I first noticed a connection between smoking and pop culture when I began subscribing to Rolling Stone a few years ago. To my dismay, brightly-colored cigarette ads paraded their way across several pages in each issue. It also seemed that nearly every photograph that wanted to convey a sense of maturity or rebelliousness featured a smoking celebrity—from Johnny Depp to skinny-tie bands like Interpol to even the look-who’s-all-grown-up Macaulay Culkin.
I see how some of my friends got sucked in
Smoking certainly isn’t something I condone, but I don’t impose my feelings about it on others. I respect their choice, and they respect mine. Usually they’re just as aware of its risks as I am. Several friends have even admitted to wanting to stop.
"Initially, I really enjoyed smoking because I like to feel like a rebel," Brian said. "[But] what I initially used to assert power over my parents and exude an appearance of coolness has ironically caused me to inadvertently portray myself as vulnerable and unattractive."
Bingo. All tolerance aside, I can’t help but wonder how a cancer-causing addiction that gives a good portion of your self-control and money to one of the largest and most evil corporations in America portrays an against-the-grain image? You just look like a sexy, cool … pawn of corporate America?
I largely credit my stance on smoking to the provocative messages of the Truth campaigns from when I was younger. I was even on the street team, posting informative stickers on telephone poles and wearing their shirts to school, despite the smirks of my classmates.
Over the years, my views have stayed the same, but the Truth shirts haven’t left my drawers. It was easy for me in seventh grade to campaign against Big Tobacco; no one I knew smoked yet. However, as friends took up the habit, I learned that it was as important to accept their decision to smoke as it was for them to accept my decision not to. "Bad habit" does not necessarily equal "bad person"—all putting down a smoker will do is make them less open-minded to quitting and isolate you from a potential new friendship or more.
And while I don’t say anything when my friends light up, I feel like today’s anti-smoking campaigns are wimpy. I no longer see billboards with images of cowboys smoking limp cigarettes or the guerrilla-style Truth ads, with team members doing things like surrounding Big Tobacco headquarters with body bags for each smoking death in the past year. Instead they seem to be getting replaced by three generations of a family gleefully crowded around a computer screen that reads "Ways to Quit Smoking! From your friends at Procter & Gamble." That’s about as inspiring as an OxiClean commercial.
But despite all the campaigning, a 2003 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 21.9 percent of high school students still smoke.
Monte Wilson, 17, a friend from Santa Cruz who recently quit smoking says, "[I started smoking] because I wanted to be cool. There is honestly no other reason to do it. Any benefits [like those from smoking] can be obtained from something that doesn’t kill you … Gradually I enjoyed more and more, but never really that much."
Oddly enough, I found myself tempted to smoke this summer. When I went to study creative writing at a program called InnerSpark in Valencia everyone smoked. We regularly walked to a nearby strip mall and had the 18-year-olds get cigarettes for everyone from the smoke shop. My friends teased me because I "chain-chewed" bubble gum to resist smoking—it was hard! While I was there, I even developed a certain affection for cigarettes; over the month I learned the brands and smells of the different kinds my friends smoked. But the last thing I wanted to be was a hypocrite, so I never tried one.
Most of my friends at InnerSpark admitted to intending to quit. "I’ll quit before I’m 30," and "I’ll quit when I get pregnant," were common refrains.
I was hoping when I started writing this piece that I would uncover some secret legit reason that people smoke. But it just seems to be, like picking up guitar or growing your hair out, just another way to try to be cool, which as teenagers, is something we all struggle with. But unlike a bad haircut, it’s important to realize smoking is a habit that puts something much greater than your social life at risk.