'Lighting Up'

Smoking is cool, sophisticated, sexy and enjoyable. Plus, it can kill you. Scott McLemee looks at a study of how students try to split the difference.

February 11, 2015

Tobacco itself is no aphrodisiac, but one of the great tropes of classic American cinema might be called “the precoital cigarette” -- an emblem of desire smoldering on-screen when Humphrey Bogart gazes at Lauren Bacall, or when she exhales after accepting a light.

It was foreplay by proxy, or as much of it as Hollywood once allowed. And 70 years later, the scenes still work. All the gestures of asking for a smoke or offering one -- the moments of sharing a cigarette or plucking it from someone’s lips to make way for a kiss -- still communicate feelings of intimacy and languor, even for audiences that remember seeing the blackened lungs of smokers in health class and have never doubted the surgeon general’s warning.

The students whose behavior Mimi Nichter analyzes in Lighting Up: The Rise of Social Smoking on College Campuses (New York University Press) are in a similarly untenable position. They feel the allure while knowing better. “Young adults have the highest prevalence of smoking of all other age groups,” she notes, “with approximately 35 percent reporting that they currently smoke.”

At the same time, the undergraduates whose rituals and folk culture interest Nichter (a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona) recognize the stigma attached to smoking. Bogie’s aura has faded. The smoker has become a pariah: unwelcome in restaurants and other public places, a menace to the health of others through secondhand smoke, at best the pitiful dupe of Joe Camel and other shills for Big Tobacco.

So how do they handle the cognitive dissonance? The short answer is that they make a distinction between enjoying a few cigarettes in social situations while in college and really being a smoker, i.e., someone addicted to nicotine for life. The contrast parallels that between social drinking and alcoholism. Social smoking is occasional rather than compulsive, something done in groups, never alone. No stigma need apply.

The comparison works at another level, since most of the social smoking discussed in Lighting Up takes place at parties where cigarettes go with alcohol “like cookies with milk,” to use one sorority girl’s expression.

As an anthropologist, rather than a psychologist, Nichter is ultimately less concerned with the rationalizations for smoking than the group situations and norms in which it is embedded. Besides conducting surveys and drawing on the work of other researchers, she has gathered detailed accounts of social smoking from native informants (freshmen and sophomores) and checked her ethnography by presenting draft chapters to her classes: “Students have told me that my descriptions of student life and smoking and drinking on campus are quite accurate.”

The picture that emerges is in some respects familiar to anyone who has ever been on a college campus in their late teens. Smoking, like drinking, is one of the behaviors perennially available for asserting the adult right to make decisions, which makes it appealing even for those who hadn’t been rebellious enough to try it in high school.

But Nichter’s inquiry also finds in effect now a common attitude towards social smoking as something to do while in college, but only then. It’s something you can and will quit once in “the real world.” Giving it up sooner would mean the loss of both a stress reliever and a set of routines useful for sociability. There are benefits to being able to introduce yourself via bumming a cigarette, to go outside for a smoke with friends at a party and to collect your thoughts before saying anything by pausing to light up.

Nichter’s respondents understood their smoking as “a habit that they engaged in when they chose to, at times when they and others seemed appropriate. ...Being really addicted, defined as ‘needing your cigarettes wherever you are,' was associated with those who were weak of will or had real problems. In contrast, many college students saw themselves as needing to smoke but only in a limited number of contexts.”

It’s not clear from Lighting Up’s otherwise very detailed account just when this cluster of attitudes and behaviors emerged. But occasional remarks by the author suggest that the antismoking public-service announcements of the past 20 years or so had a lot to do with it. Depicting smoking as addictive -- and reminding the public that tobacco companies have done research on how to make their products even more so -- seems to have had the paradoxical effect of encouraging young people to prove themselves able to light up while remaining in control.

But there are problems with such limit-setting efforts. One is that there is no definite threshold at which nicotine becomes addictive. The difference between smoking only at social events on weekends and low-level daily smoking (one or two cigarettes per day) begins to blur quite rapidly with students who begin unwinding on Thursday afternoons.

And while the undergraduate social-smoker ethos may be prepared to go cold turkey after the senior year, current trends make graduation less of a decisive transition point than it once was:

“Many grads today are stepping into an uncertain future, where the prospect of finding a good job in a timely manner is unlikely. Their 20s may be characterized by multiple moves (in and out of their parents’ and friends’ homes) and compounded by multiple stressors, not the least of which is finding oneself in a time of high unemployment and low wages. Moving into adulthood is now an elongated process, as markers of ‘settling down,’ like marriage, edge upward into one’s late 20s, if that. For those who have come to depend on the comfort of cigarettes during their college years, this array of life stressors may make cutting back or quitting more difficult, despite their intentions and understandings of the harms of tobacco.”

Smoking as a deliberate and controlled way to enjoy oneself is completely different from developing a nasty habit tinged with a death wish -- or it can be, for a while. The cigarette companies depend on people overestimating how much time they really have, and they're in no real danger of losing money on that score.


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