Young Americans Returning To Smoking
Kat Frey, a 25-year-old copywriter who lives in Brooklyn, picked up the habit last year. “We’re having a very sexy and ethereal 1980s revival, and smoking is part of that,” she said. “A lot of people I know are posting pictures doing it. I’m doing it. It’s having its moment for sure.”
At the same time, cigarette smoking has been in a steady decline among adults in the United States for 30 years. David Hammond, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo, said the drop has been fueled largely by young people.
“The decline in initiation among youth and young people is predominantly responsible for the overall decline in smoking in the population,” Dr. Hammond said. (Overall nicotine use has gone up, because of vaping.) Yet, in 2020, for the first time in two decades, cigarette sales increased.
Nigar Nargis, the scientific director of tobacco control research at the American Cancer Society, said that there was evidence of “a higher level of smoking.” “It’s probably not just young people, but there are higher sales, which indicates higher consumption,” Dr. Nargis said. While no one knows if young people also began smoking more, the logic goes like this: A high tide raises all boats.
While some smokers attest to choosing cigs over vapes for health reasons, others say that the choice is a much more classic one, loath as they may be to admit it: It looks and feels cool.
“It’s just a cool thing,” Ms. Frey said. “It sounds lame to say that. I think of hot guys that I’m into, and they’re like, ‘I’m going to step out and have a cigarette.’ It’s kind of sophisticated. Grunge sophisticated.”
And of course, part of that is your online image. “People are posting outside of a cool place, smoking with their friend, outside of cool dive bars,” Ms. Frey said. For her, like many of her generation, this aspect sounds familiar: “Smoking is part of being seen, and I think people want to be seen right now.”
For Fernanda Amis, 25, a waitress and actress who took up smoking at N.Y.U., it’s also a family affair. Her father, the writer Martin Amis, a lifelong smoker often photographed with a cigarette, has said they are one of his favorite things.
“Beautiful people do it, really talented people do it,” said Ms. Amis, who lives on the Lower East Side. “It goes with things that I admire.” In fact, back in college, she wrote a little manifesto about smoking titled “Notes of a Neo-smoker,” which included missives like: “Smoking is the epitome of masochism,” and “It is a joy to be contemporarily atypical.”
This is hard for me to see. The decline of smoking is one unambiguously good thing that has happened in my lifetime. I keep thinking of my sister’s struggle with lung cancer. She never smoked, but we both grew up in a household of heavy smokers. If you could see what lung cancer does to you — how it destroys your body, and makes you struggle to catch your breath even when you are just sitting down — you would never pick up a cigarette. Or would you? My mom and dad watched my sister die, and they kept smoking as much as ever. I guess by then they were old, and couldn’t imagine living without cigarettes. But my God, watching my once-healthy sister reduced to skin and bones, with an oxygen tank at her side, struggling to breathe — I struggle to grasp how one isn’t scared off of smoking if you see the agony lung cancer patients endure. A friend of mine smoked for forty years, but caught pneumonia one winter, and landed in the hospital, barely able to breathe. It shook her up so bad that she quit smoking, swearing that she was going to do everything she could to keep from being in that situation in the future (that is, bed-bound and fighting to catch her breath).
Beautiful people do it, really talented people do it. What an idiotic remark, but also a telling one about why people take up the habit despite knowing better. You know, I sometimes wonder what gets into people’s heads that make them want to take that first puff of crystal meth, or stick the heroin needle in their vein for the first time. Has that ever worked out well for anybody? Has anybody ever reached the end of their life grateful for having been a smoker? Well, maybe Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens… .