Why Do We Smoke?
A longtime smoker reflects on the cultural history, appeal, and vilification of the cigarette—and why so many of us still light up, whether publicly or in secret, despite knowing its risks.
This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members. During our Spring Member Drive, we urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?
She sat in front of me in Latin, seventh grade. From the corner of my eye, I noted: the toss of her dirty-blonde hair, the snap of her gum, the slouch, the black boots swung up on the desk, swung down with a sigh and a thud when the teacher walked into the room.
Those things were easy to see, even if you didn’t stare. Harder to see, caught only in glances: the Cleopatra kohl-lined eyes. The long, thickly mascaraed black lashes, blinking bored and slow. The slightly raised eyebrow. The shocking pink glossy Wet ’N Wild lips, every so often slipping into a devastating sort-of smile.
She smelled like strawberry smoke.
She packed her cigarettes against the heel of her hand, a slow, sarcastic clap cracking into the quiet room. Pulling one out with her teeth, tonguing it free of her sticky lipstick, tucking it neatly behind her ear.
She was one of the bad kids. Wore low-slung, worn-out, knee-torn black jeans, the same jeans the boys wore. Not only were the knees torn, the ass was torn, and she wore boys’ boxers underneath. Her ratty T-shirt just barely suggested the shape of her breasts. Her torn black motorcycle jacket was tagged with graffiti, her Frye boots scuffed down to the grey-blue of an old-school tattoo.
She was just that hot.
While I was a girl with a mousy brown bob, pink tinted lip gloss (applied on the walk to school so my father wouldn’t shout What the hell have you got on your face?), a girl who danced wildly in the basement when no one was home. I was a girl in a knee-length skirt and knee-high socks, and I looked just like all the other kids in seventh grade.
Except for Lisa. And the boys.
And I wanted—duh—to look like her. And hang with the boys. The older boys, the dangerous boys, the ones who got expelled, who slouched and smoked in the alley behind the school, who teased girls in gym class. They did not tease her. When they made their catcalling way down the hall, they took her along in their midst. And she walked, protected, among them, hands in her pockets, that killer half-smile, the low-lidded eyes scanning side to side, looking for I don’t know what.
That day in Latin class in 1986, she stood up. Rather, swung her hips out of her seat. Rose like a snake summoned out of a basket. Took her test and walked up the aisle to drop it on Mr. Clark’s desk. Or rather sidled. Or rather swayed. Her ass swung side to side like a slow-ticking clock.
I didn’t notice I was staring. I watched her drop the test disdainfully, swivel, and sway back down the aisle.
She saw me. She actually smiled.
I fell out of my chair. No, I didn’t. I was frozen, mouth dry. She turned, swung her hips into her seat, settled back, slouched. Tucked her dirty blonde smoke-smelling hair behind her ears.
I did it. I leaned forward. I whispered—I don’t know where the bravery, the idiocy, the foolhardiness came from—“Lisa.”
She turned her head halfway, eyebrows arched in surprise. “What?” she whispered.
“Do you have a cigarette?” It was the only thing I could think of to say, so I said it.
She turned all the way around in her chair, eyes glittering. She leaned toward me. “I didn’t know you smoked!”
I waved my hand. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “I’ve been smoking for years.”
She glanced at Mr. Clark. He was grading tests. She bent toward her bag—her hair fell forward, obscuring her face—reached in, and sat up, a few strands of hair stuck to her lips. I put my hand on the desk. She slid the cigarette under my hand.
I was in.
You don’t start smoking because you like to smoke, any more than anyone starts drinking because they like the taste of flat warm frat party beer. Smoking itself is disgusting and carcinogenic—and it causes most first-time smokers to hack and puke. I knew that as well as anyone else who started after 1964, when the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health confirmed what both physicians and tobacco companies had known for at least 20 years: Smoking is deadly.
You start neither because of the danger nor in spite of it. The actual, physical danger of smoking is incidental, and feels somewhat inapplicable, to a child; it is the aura of danger you want. Public service announcements have nothing on film noir and the femme fatale: the black-and-white streetlight, the cupped hand, the click of a Zippo, the flicker of faces, the intake of breath. You want danger not as in cancer, but as in Bogart and Brando, Dietrich and Deneuve. You stand out in the parking lot with your foot on the fender of somebody’s car, a pack rolled up in your sleeve, and right then you’re Audrey Hepburn and Rizzo from Grease, you’re the Marlboro Man and the next James Dean.
Iconography feeds on desire. There is no icon without the human longing for an object of worship, an image in which to invest all the longing for what that icon represents. If you want to sell something, you don’t focus so much on the thing itself; you create an iconography around it. This is the oldest rule in the advertising playbook, and the smoking industry literally wrote that book. You position the thing—in this case a cigarette—within a web of associations that convince the consumer whatever you’re selling will bring her what that icon has.
Which comes first: desire or the object of desire?
I wanted it, whatever it was. There was an allure that clung to cigarettes like a haze of swirling smoke. Like any desire, mine was complex and wordless, a mash-up of longings that resisted the effort to explain what they were for. When I asked Lisa for a cigarette, all I knew was that she had something I needed; or she was the thing I needed; or she was the person I wanted to be. All this schoolgirl longing rushed into the object, the gesture, the act: I would lift something to my lips, and be transformed.
Technically, I belonged to the Smoke-Free Generation, and had a mint green and pink T-shirt to prove it. Nancy Reagan’s prim Just Say No to Drugs campaign was busy making racist ads that targeted suburban fears of the crack epidemic, Wham! was a band, and Madonna was still having a massive, regrettable impact on the fashion sensibilities of American teenage girls. At hormonally fraught sleepovers, we discussed the relative importance of virginity and SAT scores, and sobbed at Pretty in Pink on VHS.
The year I was born, R. J. Reynolds’s vice-president of marketing said in a presentation to his Board of Directors that the “young adult market … represent[s] tomorrow’s cigarette business. As this 14-24 age group matures, they will account for a key share of the total cigarette volume, for at least the next 25 years.” That same year, an internal memo from the RJR department of research notes that “virtually all [smokers] start by the age of 25,” and that “most smokers begin smoking regularly and select a usual brand at or before the age of 18.”
I remain convinced that I was not pressured into smoking Camels by a talking cartoon camel with a phallic nose. But in 1988, Joe Camel—the cartoon character used to advertise Camel cigarettes—had PTA moms up in arms, and my earnest church friends prayed fervently that I would see the light, come to Jesus, or in some way be moved to quit smoking in the graveyard during confirmation class.
The act of smoking is essentially symbolic, at least when you start. When you light up, you are establishing something about who you are; whether the act is intended for others’ eyes or solely for purposes of self-construction doesn’t matter. At an age when identity and persona blur, who you are and who you seem to be share an edge, overlap. Self-awareness, self-definition, is drawn from the amorphous place where those selves intersect: You simultaneously create and become the you that you will know yourself to be.
Prior to the 20th century, there was a powerful social taboo against women who smoked. Women smokers were seen (and portrayed in the arts) as immoral, promiscuous, “fallen” women. In 17th century painting, cigarettes symbolized human foolishness; with the rise of the Dutch Republic and its upwardly mobile middle class, smoking became symbolic of transience and the brevity of life. Cigarettes, pipes, and cigars—each of which is replete with its own symbolic properties—gradually took on associations of leisure, authority, and wealth; cigarettes in particular were associated with individuality, bohemian lifestyles, and contempt for pre-Modern conservative ideals.
But throughout, smoking was seen as an exclusively male pastime. There were laws against women smoking in public well into the 20th century. In Victorian erotic literature and pornography, cigarettes were used as an occupational prop. Even in 1923, only 5 percent of cigarettes on the U.S. market were sold to women. George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, thought that was a shame, remarking that if he could tap the as-yet untouched women’s market, it would be “like opening a gold mine right in our front yard.”
As Amanda Amos and Martha Haglund argue, “It is questionable whether smoking would have become as popular among women as it did if tobacco companies had not seized on this opportunity … One of the quickest ways to interest women in his product, Mr. Hill believed, was to zero in on women’s waistlines. The timing could not have been better as slimness was coming into fashion along with bobbed hair and short skirts. The Lucky Strike campaign “Reach for Lucky instead of a sweet” of 1925 was one of the first media campaigns targeted at women. The message was highly effective and increased Lucky Strike’s market share by more than 200 percent.”
But that uptick in sales wasn’t enough. In 1928, Hill hired Edward Bernays, often called the “father of public relations,” to transform the popular perception of women who smoked. Bernays turned to psychoanalyst A.A. Brill, who supplied him with what may have been the best pull quote of all time: “Today,” Brill wrote, “the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”
Berneys took the phrase and ran with it, paying women to smoke while marching in the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929, hiring his own photographers to capture them doing it, and publishing the photos around the world. In another PR coup, feminist Ruth Hale took up the chant, saying, “Women! Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!” That year, the percentage of cigarettes sold to women in the U.S. rose to 12 percent; by 1935 it was at 18 percent; it continued to rise until it plateaued from 1965-1977 when women made up a full third of the smoking market.
Lorraine Greaves writes, “The cultural meaning of women’s smoking … is shifting from being a symbol of being bought by men (prostitute), to being like men (lesbian/mannish), to being able to attract men (glamorous/heterosexual). To this could also be added its symbolic value of being equal to men (feminism) and being your own woman (emancipation). However, despite this proliferation in messages and meanings, it is striking how tobacco companies have continued to use imagery around emancipation, the cigarette as a “torch for freedom,” as they attempt to develop new markets among women around the world.”
I have scrounged through ashtrays and smoked all the half-smoked butts. I have smoked in strip clubs, dive bars, Champagne bars, and restaurants so obscenely opulent there were men and women’s menus, and the women’s menus did not list the price. I know the sound of an old-school cigarette machine like I know the sound of gunshot: instinctively, deep in my bones. I have smoked legally in hospital rooms, and hunted down the last remaining airport smoking lounges of the Western world. I have smoked through my teeth with the smoke in my eyes shooting pool with a Las Vegas showgirl dressed in feathers. I have lit the cigarettes of pretty girls, and had mine lit by dashing men. I have smoked in bathtubs and beds, lit half a dozen fitted sheets on fire while falling asleep. I know the price of cigarettes in every state, and have crossed state lines to get them cheap. I’ve smoked from border to border and coast to coast, driving I-90 east to west and I-35 north to south. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve quit.
It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall’s about to fall, and I’m squinting through the smoke in the break room of the suburban McDonald’s where I work for something like $3.10 an hour. It’s summer, and while the older women redo their makeup—the heat from the deep fryers melts their eyeshadow into their crow’s feet, their lipstick bleeds into the smoker’s lines around their mouths—I sit with my arms crossed, listening to this kid who looks like a ferret talk shit about girls. He is a regular ass-grabber, and I am plotting my fabulous proto-feminist comeback when he says, apropos of whatever, “Snatches are ugly as sin.” The break room bursts into cackling laughter and smoker’s hacks. I take a drag, exhale through my nostrils, and laugh along.
I have smoked to hide, and I have smoked to make myself seen. I have smoked to have something to do with my hands and with this silly yapping mouth besides trip over my words. I have smoked as a way of speaking. I have smoked as both comment and punctuation, as a way of starting conversations or cutting them off—the snap of a match, the sharply inhaled last word. I’ve given cigarettes to countless bums and begged a light from endless faceless strangers, standing too close to them, bent in reverence over the flame in their hands.
I have a friend who says she smoked because her exhaled breath was visible proof: She was alive. She existed, separate and apart from the world; she was real; she was there. Gesturing, she scrawled her name on the air, and we watched as it disappeared.
Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.
Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.
But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.