Recently, on a not-so-wintry Thursday in the Bushwick neighborhood of New York’s borough of Brooklyn, when the only snowflakes to be seen were those sent by text message, a gang of twentysomethings were gathered in a circle outside the city. Clearing art gallery, sharing a pack of American Spirits.
A few days earlier, at Columbia University, a 19-year-old medical student stared enviously at her phone screen – Parisian women in pretty dresses walking around with cigarettes in hand – before going out to smoke a cigarette with her friends. (She asked not to be identified by name because she didn’t want her habit to affect her career in medicine.)
People also smoke on the internet. On Instagram, Tasmin Ersahin, a photographer and stylist, published a story in which her boyfriend, Arsun Sorrenti (son of photographer Mario Sorrenti), caught a lit cigarette in his mouth. On TikTok, DJ and model Charly Jordan took a sexy French puff for his 7.7 million followers.
“People are smoking again,” said Isabel Rower, 24, a sculptor, one of the spirited Americans outside Clearing. “Interestingly, in the last year or two, all of my friends who didn’t smoke now smoke. I do not know why. No one is really addicted to cigarettes. It is more of a pleasure activity ”.
Across New York City, as the pandemic progresses and recedes, a social activity that seemed to have diminished or improved (with vapes, cannabis, and education) appears to have reappeared. Have cigarettes, those dirty things that cause cancer, lost their taboo and remain the leading cause of preventable death in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
Are there really more smokers?
Kat Frey, a 25-year-old copywriter living in Brooklyn, got into the habit last year. “We’re having a very sexy and ethereal revival of the 1980s, and smoking is part of that,” he explained. “A lot of people I know are posting photos doing it. I am also smoking. It is becoming fashionable ”.
At the same time, cigarette use has declined steadily among adults in the United States for 30 years. David Hammond, Professor of Public Health at the University of Waterloo, said the decline has been largely driven by young people.
“The decline in initiation among young adults and youth is the predominant reason smoking has declined overall in the population,” said Hammond. (Overall nicotine use has increased due to vaping.) However, in 2020, for the first time in two decades, cigarette sales increased.
Nigar Nargis, scientific director of tobacco control research at the American Cancer Society, said there was evidence of “a higher level of smoking.” “It’s probably not just the youngsters, but there are higher sales, indicating higher consumption,” Nargis said. While no one knows if the youths also started smoking more, the logic is this: a high tide lifts all boats.
If the clouds of smoke that many of us think we are seeing are not actually mirages, the next logical question is where they come from.
Something to do together
The obvious answer, a la James Carville, is this: it’s the pandemic, stupid.
Kiersyn Cocke, 30, started smoking as a teenager, but by 2020 she hadn’t smoked in three years. And then the coronavirus arrived. “Without a doubt it was due to the pandemic and it was definitely stress,” he said. “And it certainly gave me something to do.”
Cocke lives in New York and is a brand manager for a startup. “We’ve been living remotely and away from each other for a year and a half,” he said, leaving Minnows, a bar near the Greenpoint-Williamsburg border in Brooklyn, to have a cigarette. That “something to do” became “something to do together.”
Additionally, once many of the pandemic’s restrictions were lifted and people were allowed out to play, there was an initiative to indulge themselves.
“When I go out to a bar, it’s a lot of fun hanging out with my friends,” Frey said. “You look at other people who do the same. They all hang out together. ” The outdoor nightlife easily lent itself to more smoking, as did the outdoor eating huts, built outside of the city’s many restaurants and bars once the colder weather hit.
A third pandemic effect, darker, was a kind of fatalism, an attitude of “après moi, le déluge” (which means something like ‘after my death, whatever happens I don’t care’) that fester over the months of loneliness, in addition to the constant news of death and illness.
“We all have this brand-new death wish, so to speak,” said Ryan Matera, a 25-year-old assistant at an agency in Los Angeles. “We just look north and we see fires, and the ground shakes under us, and they tell us that the waters are rising. So we asked ourselves, ‘What’s the difference?’
Rower felt something similar on the east coast of the country. “I think everyone got into a ‘what’s the point?’ Mentality.”
‘It’s extremely silly’
However, these young people know the dangers of smoking, right? In 2019, the CDC reported that cigarette use among American adults had reached a record low of 13.7 percent in 2018. Education does not appear to be the problem.
Rachel Yara, a 23-year-old student in Boston, smokes despite being born with a small hole in her lung. “It’s extremely silly,” he commented. “If I have a cold, I have asthma attacks. And this certainly makes it worse. “
But that is not all. “Part of the appeal is that it almost feels like a rejection of the wellness culture, which is very stupid,” he said. It feels good, he said, to reject all that.
“I don’t have the time or money to go to Whole Foods and do yoga and eat healthy food bowls,” she added. “I will never eat a bowl of salad. I sit here, smoking my cigarettes, and I forget ”.
In a world of wellness, cigarettes offer a solid rebellion, especially when there are so few options. Cannabis, once the king of the counterculture, is now a wellness party. Not only is it legal in many states, but also something your geeky uncle uses to help him sleep.
“The herb is positioned as medicine now,” Frey said. “And cigarettes are the bad and daring option.”
‘Don’t have a USB charger in your mouth’
Talking about smoking without including vaping is like talking about television without including streaming, especially since a recent Gallup poll reported that seventeen percent of Americans ages 18-29 vape; the CDC has reported that only eight percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 smoke.
To enter this debate is to launch into a dispute over health care, between those who believe that vaporizers are a proven tool to help smokers quit smoking and those who believe that they are the evolution of the tobacco industry to become addicted to nicotine to new generations. (They may both be right, by the way).
For most young smokers, vaping devices exist in a kind of dance, whether it’s Juul’s, Myle’s disposable pods, or single-use e-cigarettes like Puff Bars. Many tried e-cigarettes in their teens, before fragrant flavors were banned in many states, and many more joined the Juul trend a few years ago. Of the smokers I spoke to (about twenty), most use vaporizers on par with traditional cigarettes, although some don’t come close to vaporizers.
“If you’re going to be addicted to something, smoke cigarettes,” Frey said. Don’t have a USB charger in your mouth. It looks bad. Many young smokers supplement themselves with vaporizers, particularly those from Juul, as a means of satisfying their craving for nicotine when a cigarette is not available. “
At the same time, several people interviewed for this article expressed anger at the insidious nature of e-cigarettes: their relative camouflage, compared to traditional cigarettes, means that users can and often do consume them all the time. The nicotine stream from an e-cigarette becomes like the internet: constant, unbreakable, and hungry for consumers’ attention.
‘It is a pleasure to be atypical in your time’
While some smokers say they choose cigarettes over vaporizers for health reasons, others say the choice is much more classic, even though they hate to admit it: it looks and feels great.
“It’s kind of cool,” Frey said. “It sounds silly to say that. I think of the handsome boys that I like and they say, “I’m going to go out and have a cigarette.” It is somewhat sophisticated. Scruffy but sophisticated ”.
And of course, your online image is part of that. “People post pictures of when they’re out in a cool place, smoking with their friends, out of seedy but cool bars,” Frey noted. For her, as for many of her generation, this aspect is 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 started smoking at New York University, it is also a family affair. His father, the writer Martin Amis, a lifelong smoker who often appears in photographs with a cigarette, has said they are one of his favorite things.
“Beautiful people do it. Very talented people do it, ”said the actress, who lives on the Lower East Side. “It goes with the things that I admire.” In fact, in college, he wrote a little manifesto on smoking titled “Notes from a New Smoker”, which included missives such as: “Smoking is the epitome of masochism” and “It is a pleasure to be atypical in your time.”
‘I don’t like it to be something so present in my life’
If this all sounds desperately retrograde, it may not be permanent. In 2020, Monitoring the Future, a preeminent study of youth smoking since 1975, recorded the first spike in years. In mid-December, he published his most recent findings: cigarette use has dropped across all grade levels.
At the same time, smoking, whatever its form, seems irrepressible. Regardless of science or era, it’s one of those things, like blue jeans, that has always conveyed the idea of being cool and will always symbolize renegade urges in some way.
“It’s something you are always excited about,” said Kitty Luo, 21, a student at the University of Chicago. But that’s also what makes her want to kick the habit: “I find that my life moves on thinking, ‘When will the next cigarette be?’ I do not like that it is something so present in my life.
And for many of those who are under the spell right now, there is a constant hope that it will soon disappear. Lula Hyers, 24, a photographer and New Yorker by birth, said she would like to quit smoking cigarettes. “It is very expensive,” he assured. “They are really evil corporations. I would like to lead a healthier lifestyle than I do now. But there are many things to worry about ”.
And for now, cigarettes are not one of them.