September 04, 2007

Borrowing "Cool": For Smokers, the Debt Comes Due

So yet another new study has just come out reminding us of the damage cigarette smoking can do to the human body.

One has to wonder: is there any possible Horrible Consequence that might make a difference to a young person deciding whether or not to smoke?

Typical Teenager or College Student has already heard thousands of times that smoking is addictive, that it can cause heart disease and cancer and emphysema, and will eventually choke the life out anyone who chooses to take it up. Fortunately, that does stop a lot of kids. But plenty of others go right ahead.

This recent headline might be slightly more helpful: "Smokers' Skin Is More Wrinkled, Even In Areas Shielded From Sunlight." But it would probably need to say "Smoking will Cause Huge Green Volcanic Pimples To Appear on Your Face Permanently--Starting Tomorrow Morning," to even register.

However, the study did at least put the focus where it should be when addressing the important factors a young person weighs when deciding whether to smoke: how will it make me look?

Anti-smoking campaigns can't change the fact that smoking will make a young person cool. Only young people themselves can change that, and why would they?

It's the easiest possible way for teens to rebel. Smoking won't get you thrown in jail, pregnant, exposed to AIDS, or so wrecked you can't remember where you live. You don't even have to visit a "bad" neighborhood to score. Plus it's a much more convincing "f**ck-it-all" statement than a simple tattoo or nose piercing.

And it works! You can indeed "borrow" coolness you don't actually own yourself. If you are of tender years, your social status will be likely elevated if you take up this toxic but glamorous habit. You will look more suave, more adventurous, more "up for anything." At least through much of your twenties.

But sorry, it's all downhill after that. No one looks at 36-year-old Brian from Accounting and thinks, wow, he's so sophisticated--he smokes! Just keep watch at any downtown office building where actual grown-ups work. Wait for break time. See those people huddled there in the doorways in the the snow, the hundred degree heat? Are those the "cool" people?

Oddly enough, there seems to be almost an inverse relationship between hipness and these folks. There's an air of depression and defeat about these gatherings. No one would mistake this for the "in crowd."

What's truly amazing is the number of young adults who still make this clueless bargain--who don't even need to! (Some of us geeky types who took a few experimental puffs back in the day, but decided the price was too high--we could have really used the help). Evening strolls through the trendy neighborhoods of Washington D.C. recently revealed hordes of twenty-somethings who looked rich, attractive, well-dressed, pampered, and ready to step into privileged lives--with cigarettes dangling from their lips.

Perhaps it was the air of smugness about some of them that brought on an emotion that wasn't, well, pity. You could almost hear them: "Can't you see how awesome we look? Don't you wish you were us?"

Yep, dude, sure enough--you do look awesome. But no. Absolutely no wish to be you.


  1. Heh, isn't it completely lame and silly that indeed, the only thing that could work would be the green pimples thingy? Otherwise people just don't care. After all, it always happens to others, but it can't happen to me. *rolleyes*

    At least I'm glad that I never got past the few cigs I smoked when I was in high school 'to look cool'. To be perfectly honest, I've always felt they made me look more ridiculous than anything else--with that stuff dangling from my fingers or lips, as if I didn't know what to do with my own body. Blessed be my positive and strong personality; in spite of having Tourette's and being overweight', I still managed to escape the trap of wanting to 'blend in'!

  2. I smoked for 10 years, all through the 1970s, and when I was young I couldn't wait to grow up so I could smoke.
    Consequently, I started a few months shy of my 12th birthday.
    Smoking was still good for you then, so it would seem. Or if not good, then surely harmless.
    Today, with all the science to back up how bad it is, it's just sad to see smokers. I answered a phone survey the other day which was quite clearly sponsored by Big Tobacco that, at it's core, wondered if Big Tobacco was making any gains by a) making a safer product and/or b) marketing a new smokeless tobacco.
    No, but you will fool enough people to keep your market share.
    Among the biggest problems with smoking is it can help keep the weight off. If smoking made you fat, then smokers, especially women, would be quitting in droves.

  3. I truly believe that many people keep on smoking because of this weight loss idea. Or because it's something they do while drinking, like it gives them an extra buzz.

    But your 20's the commercials about death or possible wrinkles down the road aren't enough to get your attention. Too bad "through the lips to the hips" can't be used here1

  4. "It's the easiest possible way for teens to rebel. Smoking won't get you thrown in jail, pregnant, exposed to AIDS, or so wrecked you can't remember where you live. You don't even have to visit a "bad" neighborhood to score. Plus it's a much more convincing "f**ck-it-all" statement than a simple tattoo or nose piercing." this is a pretty astute assessment. Not lazy at all Crabby. Hmmm, although sadly I'd argue that some older individuals make smoking look pretty good too. The problem is we can't erase the history that happened before we knew smoking was bad.

    James Dean, the old crooner flicks, etc. It's so deeply embedded I'm not sure what the solution is. Smoky bars and concerts and Warhol, I mean the allure is still strong in the media. There is an anti-movement that is strong too now but it just does not have the years that the first smoking movement has (yet).

    Also if you notice -- many kid anti-smoking ads show kids smoking. And they never show dumb looking overweight weird, etc kids. It's usually a cool kid. Maybe the people making the commercials don't know cool vs. not when they see it. What's that about. Duh people.

  5. I started smoking in high school and continued the habit for over a decade. I finally quit when I knew I wanted to have kids. Even then, it was not easy to do but the motivation worked for me. Having healthy children (and being healthy for them) was far more real for me than the down-the-road worries such as wrinkles and extra weight.. both which came anyway. ;)

  6. I've never smoked myself and can't stand the stuff. But there's a bar I often frequent where all the people I enjoy hanging out with are smokers. And their take on it has been this - it's never been cool to smoke. Everyone knows about the health risks and so on. But that the people who are cool are the smokers (not that they think smoking will make them cool). Now, there could be people who look at this crowd and say to themselves "ooh, if I smoke, I'll be cool like them." But it seems like in the anti-smoking culture we have (yay anti-smoking laws!), it takes a lot of fortitude to actually keep smoking, and get exiled to the cold outside when your friends are having fun inside. I'm not at all condoning smoking, but just pointing out at least one positive trait here (or is it just that the addiction is too strong?...)

  7. I come from a family of smokers. My father used to smoke his pipe or cigar in the car WITH THE WINDOWS CLOSED. And I wonder why I have asthma.

    ANyway, when I had my kids, I was worried that they would start smoking, so we began early about lots of different things that kids can choose to do - or not do - in life. That would include drugs, alcohol, stealing, cigarettes, etc. We would use conversations to point out things like how ridiculously expensive cigarettes were and why would you want to spend your money on something that goes up in smoke?

    We were VERY lucky in that our kids' friends (most of them) didn't smoke, so that played a huge role in what happened to my guys.

    I don't kid myself, I'm sure that at least one of them has tried smoking, but I like to think that at this point, the biggest danger of them smoking is over. That's not to say it can't happen, but it's less likely now than when they were younger.

  8. Sad really...
    Everyone I knew in school who smoked to be "cool" is now desperately trying to quit. Some can't. In the lab when I worked with nicotene powder on a project it was labelled as a poisonous toxin and suspected carcinogen and we were protected to the gills with all sorts of always made me shake my head.

    As an asthmatic, smoking boggles my mind...I always get rude looks from smokers if they light up near me and I start coughing as a result. I'm not trying to be a jerk about it...I actually go a bit too far the other way and not ask them to but out if it's outside...but if I can't breathe froma few whiffs, what's a few years of a pack a day doing to them? Go smoke somewhere else. And people who quit when they're pregnant and then start up again after? I just don't get it...

    I firmly believe if you choose to smoke you should not get health care when you're old - Like a waiver you sign or something. It's not some unknown mystery that smoking is bad for you. Noone is holding you down making yo usmoke. It's like obesity...something we all dance around and ignore. I'm glad there are stop smoking assistance programs and weight loss programs where I work.
    We need to look after ourselves better...

  9. As long as tobacco companies are showing a profit from cigarettes, they will continue to market them in whatever manner seems to work and then spending a pittence in comparison to promote anti smoking programs. What other industry could get away with such a thing?!?! Think about it, they actually fund programs to keep you from using their product!!!

    On a brighter note, my husband is still quit since May using a drug called Chantix. He said it was good for him and the fact that we are still married is a statement in itself!

  10. Well, everyone knows teens think they're immortal and that bad consequences will happen to the other person, not to them. It's a necessary trait at that age. If any of us had known just what a b*tch life could be, would we have still struck out on our own?

    I do wonder, though, that kids don't look at smokers and think, "Hm... why are smokers over thirty always trying to quit, while non-smokers over thirty never start? I wonder..."

    Further, no one (even middle aged smokers) seems to have noticed that no one pries cigarettes from a smoker's cold dead fingers. The cigs are long gone by then because of the oxygen tank needed during the final days of lung cancer or emphysema.

    It's a miserable way to die and you still have to quit anyway.

  11. This letter, written by me was published in our city's paper this year. I don't expect anyone who is reading this blog to need it, I'm just joining the choir.

    If you knew of something so terrible and insidious, that it would steal your youth, your health, your future, your finances, and your life, would you avoid it? Then why don't you?
    Smoking cigarettes does all this! It does this to everyone who smokes. The trash from cigarettes, and the proven dangers of so-called second-hand smoke involve all of use in this filthy, dangerous habit.
    I am very dismayed at the number of people I see smoking cigarettes, especially young people. I believe the community must do everything it can to reach and educate people about the slow, miserable death they are choosing when they begin to smoke cigarettes.
    I feel the University should make the entire campus a non-smoking area, or at least the entire medical center campus.
    For those of you who continue to smoke, you are giving up your life to that little white stick you are putting in your mouth. It will control and destroy you before it finally casts you aside.

    Next time I'll tell you how I really feel :-)


  12. As usual, Star Wars shows us the way:
    "You wanna buy some Death Sticks?"
    "You don't want to sell me death sticks."
    "I...don't wanna sell you death sticks."
    "You want to go home and think about your life."
    "I want to go home, and think about my life."

    I won't say I haven't tried cigarettes, because when you're out with your friends hitting the bars and everyone is lighting up your curiosity can overwhelm you. But beyond lighting up the occasional buzz-enhancing cigarette I don't get how people can do it so many times per day, day after day, year after year. My brother is a habitual smoker, and my family has tried everything to get him to quit. I flat-out offered him a thousand dollars last week if he'd stop smoking; he said I'd need to up it to at least ten. Then he went outside for a cigarette.

    The fact that hippies and AIDS patients alike are arrested for smoking a chemically nonaddictive weed while Big Tobacco gets away scot-free with poisoning millions of people is bewildering to me.

  13. So I smoked for a couple of years, kind of on and off. I never smoked alone, always with other smokers or while we were having some drinks. Some weeks I'd smoke a lot and others not a all. I never found it hard to not have a cigarette for some reason (I suppose it could be that I didn't smoke enough or that I don't have a very addictive personality).

    Why did I do it at all? I don't kid myself; it made me feel cool. While sipping on a drink (I don't drink anymore either) or down at the local pool hall or even just having coffee at 3am in IHOP.

    Would I start again? Hell no! I plan on running again and smoking makes it a million times harder to get your lungs back in shape, heh. Not to mention all that other stuff about how it'd be the death of me eventually. ;)

  14. I'm not a smoker, but both of my siblings were growing up. One sibling was finally able to quit after tremendous difficulty. Our high school had a smoking section! I think they've since done away with it; but, dear god, what were they thinking?

    I teach first year composition class at a University. We usually debate smoking at some point in the semester. For the most part, very few students smoke (at least the students enrolled in my classes). They know about the risks and by this point they usually want to quit, but are addicted. (Addicted before the age of 20!) We talk about how the image of smoking was presented to them through advertisements, the movies and celebrities. Most of them get angry by the end of class because they feel manipulated by these money making groups. It's a hard lesson to learn and it makes me so angry that ads are aimed at kids. Camel using cartoons to appeal to kids is outrageous!

  15. I don't smoke, and I'm glad I never picked up the habit. I have seen from smokers and former smokers I know that it's really dang hard to quit, so it's best not to get started in the first place.

    And heh, I went to high school in the eighties and I remember how some kids smoked to "look cool." The smell of the smoke has always made me think "ewww", even back then!

    Thanks, Crabby, for your sweet comment on my blog this morning. I really appreciate it! :)

  16. I smoke. I've smoked since about half-way through high school, and I started for all the usual reasons: everyone I hung out with seemed to smoke, it was a five-minute rebellion, and I'd get in eqqual trouble for near smokers as doing it myself, so why not do it? And it was great, for a long time. People would give me lectures on how it would kill my lungs, but I'd grab a cigarette and then go play hockey, with no problem at all. Heck, in order to sneak them, I used to get up early, run 1 1/2 miles, smoke a couple, then run back.

    Now I'm in my mid-twenties, I know all the workplace gossip and am friendly with my co-workers, because I broke the ice with a key contingent of them on our smoke breaks. I have an easy conversation starter with guys, particularly since we now all have to go out, and there's nothing like being exiled in the freezing cold to make you band together with your fellow exiles.

    So why would I believe that it was really going to hurt ME? And, thus far, it has not, except financially. But it will, and I do know that, as do we all. How many smokers do you know who encourage others to start? We know better. And I will quit one day, soon, probably, but as soon as I can sustain the motivation. I'd never do it when I was ready for kids, and honestly I think it IS starting to affect my ability to get in shape aerobically, but I don't really have the willpower yet to quit. Sooner or later, though, it will impact my life in ways I don't like. And that'll be the end of it. Maybe sooner rather than later.

  17. I'm so proud of my husband who is in the middle of "giving up smoking". He's tried before and failed but it seems to be going well this time. He's using the nicotine gum and ordinary chewing gum to help. The weight thing could prove to be a problem down the track as last time he tried, he found food tasted so good that he was putting on weight.

  18. Hi All!

    Sorry about Comment Slackitude so far today, especially with such great thoughtful comments coming in.

    Since my normal pattern is to answer the first few and discriminate against later time zones, this time I'll slack on the earlier ones and say hi to the second half people. But all the comments are great.

    Thanks Kery, Leah, Amanda, Jennifer, Hilary, Lethological Reader, and Marijke!

    That's fascinating about the precautions you take in the lab around nicotene! What a reminder of how dangerous it can be.

    Holly, that's great news about your husband. I'm always really impressed when people manage to quit, I hear it's almost as hard as going off heroin. Good for him!

    Bunnygirl, I never even thought about the whole thing with the oxygen tanks. So you have to end up quitting anyway? It is interesting that young people never seem to put it together that that no one past thirty is glad they started.

    Hi Dr. J,
    Great letter! Really hope it does some good.

    Hi Jim,
    Oh good we needed the Star Wars take on it!

    Sounds like you're one of those people who can dabble a bit without getting hooked--we have a friend like that but please be careful! And that's fascinating about your brother. Well, actually, I think our parents offered us $1,000 when we turned 21 if we never tried cigarettes--a lot of $$ back then. We all tried 'em anyway. The Lure of Cool. My sister got hooked but I backed off quickly enough, thank goodness. And good for you for trying to help your bro quit.

    Lisa--so another one who could dabble without getting seriously hooked. Sounds like you have a much smarter approach to it now. I think having kids changes the whole thing for a lot of people.

    Hi Soap Box Girl,
    That's great that it's something that gets discussed in your class! Sounds like your students are a lot smarter than the college kids I've been seeing lately. And yeah, the fact that tobacco companies actually profit from marketing to kids is outrageous!

    Hi Thomma Lyn,
    I'm not surprised that you weren't even tempted! It's somehow very hard to picture you as a smoker. And you're welcome! All true.

    Hi Hedgehog,
    What a great comment! And I hope you weren't offended by the post. I experimented myself and could easily be among that group of smokers huddled outside in the doorways. I think part of the problem is, it really is 'cool' to smoke! Up to a certain age... I'm glad you're re-evaluating though, especially since some of the damage it does is kinda invisible now and then it gets you later. Good luck if you do decide someday to quit.

    Dawn, that's great about your husband! And I think that weight thing really does keep a lot of people from quitting. But I also believe that while the weight gain can last a year or so, eventually the metablolism returns to normal. Good luck to him and hope it sticks this time! For my Mom and sister, it took a number of tries but they both finally quit for good.

  19. When I first arrived I only saw the top of the picture you posted and no headline. The first thought in my head, "Don't tell me slacker is endorsing pot smoke for weight loss." Don't ask me why I thought that.

  20. Hi John,
    Well unfortunately I think pot has the opposite effect, but if the researchers ever do discover that it contributes to weight loss, you'll certainly see it reported here at Cranky Fitness ASAP!

  21. THese comments are so fun to read!

    I was never one to see smoking as glamorous or cool, even as a dorky adolescent. It always seemed kinda gross to me. And it always seemed like the kids who did in my schools were kind of...lurky.

    But I'd be an idiot to think that it's obvious to all kids why NOT to start. And I think you're on to something though with targeting the "looks."

  22. Hi Katieo,
    Yeah, I find it fascinating to see what everyone's experience with this has been like!

    I would be surprised if you were ever actually a "dorky" adolescent--though not surprised at all that you were smart enough not to even be tempted by smoking!

  23. I have smoked since the tender age of 10. I will be 50 in a couple months. Am I one of those skinny people who drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes rather than eat? Nope. Do I have chest pain, bad breath, smelly clothes, no "wind", a persistent cough? Yup. I have been trying to quit since April, and have managed to cut down immensely. It is a terrible addiction - not only physically, but also psychologically. I find if I am around smokers, I want to smoke. And when most of your friends are smokers, you are around them, or you spend a lot of time alone. It's easy to make excuses, but hard to quit. I'm trying, though, and that has to count for something. If we could momentarily transport those teenagers and let them know how they will feel after 20 or 30 years of smoking, they might change their minds. "It'll never happen to me" is the prevailing attitude.
    As an aside, the comment that smokers should be refused health care is downright rude. In Canada, everyone pays into the health care system, and at least some of the tax money we pay on our cigarettes goes to pay for health care. Should alcoholics be refused health care because they "did it to themselves"? How about children born with fetal alcohol syndrome? Their mother chose to drink when they were in her womb. Obese people shouldn't have access to health care because they choose to overeat? Get real. How about athletes who overtrain and strain a muscle? They did it to themselves, too. And what exactly would we do with all those smokers dying of emphysema and cancer? Put them in colonies like they did to people with leprosy? Just wondering...

  24. Hi Almost,
    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Hope you're eventually able to quit--I was SO lucky my few experiments with smoking didn't take because I don't know if I'd have the willpower to give up such a powerful addiction. I have tremendous respect for those who are able to cut down or quit entirely. Thanks for stopping by!

  25. I forgot to mention, my dad used to smoke; it took five little kids, all annoying him about it non-stop, to quit. Just think: if every addicted smoker had a quintet of tots following him around crying because they "don't want him to die" and breaking every single cigarette in most cartons and boxes he bought, how long could the affliction last?

  26. hi Jim!
    Yeah, you'd think! But we tried that with my parents and all it did was get them Really Pissed Off. My dad never quit and it took my mom a few more decades before she did. You guys must have been way more persistent/hellacious than we were about it!

  27. There was no one who had a harder time than me in quitting nicotine. I smoked throughout my teenage years, my time in the service, and into my 20's before stopping the first time. After my divorce at 29, I started again, and didn't really give it up until I was 45.
    The process was not helped, even one little bit, by the constant nagging and disapproval of friends and family. I used to say by "well meaning" friends and family, but let's be real...that type of help is much more about the other party's being judgemental than it ever is about helping the smoker.
    It's been six years now. I gained a bunch of weight and then had to listen to more "well meaning" tongue clucking and advice, but that went away after the weight fell off. Amazingly, after my resurrection, I found that most of those parties and myself had very little to talk about.


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