By Danielle Nedivi
It’s a question that we have all wondered about at some point. No matter if we are active users, casual dabblers, or outside observers- the mystery confounds in all contexts: why do people smoke cigarettes? Today, virtually everyone in the United States knows that smoking is bad. School programs, public service ads, flyers, doctors- even the cigarette boxes themselves- have drilled that into our brains incessantly enough. Yellow teeth, wrinkles, short breath, not to mention heart disease, lung disease, cancer- the list is seemingly endless. And yet, despite all of the well-known detrimental consequences, smoking is still very much a prevalent activity throughout the US, with the young generations just as much as the old.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 3,500 people younger than 18 try their first cigarette every single day, and 1,100 others become regular daily smokers. About one-third of these kids will later die from a smoking-related disease. Considering that we all know about this deadly effect, why try that fateful first cigarette in the first place? The answers vary from person to person, but overall they tend to cover the same ground. Some studies have shown social influences from peers to be a major cause. Powell (2005) showed that moving a high-school student from a school where no children smoked to a school where one quarter of the youths smoked would increase the probability that he or she smoked by about 14.5%. Overall, based on 2007 data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 20% of high school students smoke. Many prefer not to feel left out or appear antisocial by not taking risks or trying new things, and they are willing to compromise their health to achieve that crucial sense of belonging. The health-deteriorating factor of cigarettes is too elusive and vaguely far off to feel critical- if anything, their immediate effects are mostly positive.
Smoking provides many enticements on top of its well-advertised drawbacks. Cigarettes stimulate receptor sites for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and provide a short term boost in dopamine levels. The results can be a temporary yet immediate calm and solace to a smoker . They can also render potentially awkward moments such as breaks from conversation natural (Dichter, 1947). They provide a smoky, mature voice and a feeling of sophistication and nonchalance. That society has brought many to believe that smoking is “cool” does not help matters. In media from films to books to songs, from GQ photo spreads to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the smoker is usually presented as an alluring rebel worth striving to imitate. “Chain smoking” and “clove cigarettes” have become unpredictably glorified terms. At least at the moment, the image of the slightly neurotic, jaded, risk-taking smoker is trendy, and people will go far to emulate it. Even in college, where we believe students are not only more intelligent and mature but also less impressionable, cigarettes still appear all over the place and incite a mystique the influence of which is difficult to shake off, even for those who had successfully avoided the offender thus far (Reed, 2006) .
These are fine reasons for the first cigarette, but why do people continue to the third, and tenth, until they have developed an iron habit so difficult to break off that many people simply give up trying? Starting early is a recipe for long-term addiction- and addiction is undoubtedly the main culprit to blame for the continuous use of cigarettes. Nicotine tricks the brain synapses to believe that they are accepting acetylcholine, and eventually they stop producing the real neurotransmitter of the same effect to avoid overload. However, this causes the body to be dependent on nicotine, and whenever a smoker is deprived of cigarettes for too long, the body begins to experience withdrawal symptoms. By the time the smoker has more or less consciously reached this stage, he or she is hooked and will have serious difficulty dropping the addiction.
Despite all of the bad news, the fact is that smoking has been on the decline. Data from the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) indicates that the prevalence of current cigarette use in high schools has declined from 36.4% in 1997 to 21.9% in 2003, and has remained stable as of 2007. However, not too much comfort can be derived from this, because this prevalence had jumped from 27.5% in 1991 to 36.4% in 1997 before (with similar results among adults). Smoking trends are clearly not very stable, and a turn-around showing resurging cigarette popularity can happen again any time.
Dichter, E. (1947) Why Do We Smoke Cigarettes? Originally published in The Psychology of Everyday Living. Retrieved 5 Mar. 2009 from Smoking Sides <http://smokingsides.com/docs/whysmoke.html>.
Kane, A. M. (2009, January 9). If Smoking is Bad for You, Who Still Does It? Retreived from CNN.com
Office on Smoking and Health, Div of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC (2008, June 27). Cigarette Use Among High School Students — United States, 1991–2007. Retreived 5 Mar. 2009 from <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5725a3.htm>.
Powell, L. M. (2005) The Importance of Peer Effects, Cigarette Prices and Tobacco Control Policies for Youth Smoking Behavior. Journal of Health Economics (24) 950-68.
Reed, M. B. (2006) The Relationship Between Alcohol Use and Cigarette Smoking in a Sample of Undergraduate College Students. Addictive Behaviors 32, 449-64.
Centers for Disease Control (2009) Smoking & Tobacco Use. Retrieved from <http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/
Watson, N. A. “Filthy or Fashionable? Young People’s Perceptions of Smoking in the Media.” Health Education Research. Oct. 2003. Oxford University Press. 5 Mar. 2009<http://her.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/18/5/554>.