Fatal attraction: why we smoke

The uncomfortable truths about why smoking is still so popular

I am not going to start by patronising you about the various dangers of smoking. Nor am I going to fearmonger you with a cheerful assortment of cancer statistics. As both non-smokers and smokers alike know (the latter thanks to the rest of us persistently reminding them), smoking is in fact bad for you. It makes your throat both look and feel like a half-used tin of Tate & Lyle Black Treacle. It makes your breath smell like your grandad’s unwashed curtains. And it leaves your breathing like an asthmatic pug.

I acknowledge all of this as a smoker of over three years. So why did it take me so long to quit? The honest, yet often unpalatable, truth is for many of us smoking can be a lot of fun. Before you gasp in horror, write a letter of complaint to the editor-in-chief, or go full Mumsnet in the comments section, let me offer an explanation.

I started smoking for the same reason almost all smokers do- to fit in. I was working a minimum wage job waiting on tables, alongside six Italian people, two Polish people and a Lithuanian person, all of whom smoked. Smoking can unite people.  It transcends class, cultural differences and language barriers. As anyone who has seen “The One Where Rachel Smokes” will know, smoke breaks also used to count for a lot in the working world. They were often where the best chats happen, where the best gossip was shared and where a lot of decisions were unofficially made- sadly for the service industry this is still a reality.

Why do we feel the need to smoke outside of the workplace then? One answer is we think it makes us look attractive. Truth be told, to many people it does. No number of NHS public health warnings can make the image of James Dean lighting up a Camel Blue not look cool. Smoking is still very much associated with the music industry, rebellion and our intellectual and artistic heroes.

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Smokers themselves are often viewed as having an aloof, devil-may-care attitude towards life. For those who have grown up in households with curfews and bedtimes (not to mention strict warnings about the very dangers of smoking), this can seem new, rebellious and sexy. Hence why we want to try it for ourselves.

So what about those who neither smoke in the workplace, nor care about the image? Those left largely start off as social smokers. To them smoking offers a means of escape. It’s a way to excuse themselves from the wider company, to break from the main conversation and have a more intimate discussion. Smokers can bond over their bad habit. They know full well that those in their company cannot judge them or tell them what they already know. There’s a reason that the Bridge smoking area is almost as big as the club, people enjoy this form of socialising. The cigarette itself is often secondary to the smoking experience.

All of this might make it look like I’m a lobbyist for Big Tobacco– trust me, I’m not. None of the reasons I’ve outlined mean smoking good for us. Nearly a year on from being a regular smoker and I can still feel some of the impacts on my health, to the point at which I would never take up the habit again. If we are open about why we smoke however, we are more open to being convinced not to.

For every casual smoker comes a point when they realise it’s not just for pleasure, but it’s an addiction. To use another Friends analogy, you stop being the cautious, naïve Rachel and start to feel like the veteran Chandler. The novelty and thrill that it once brought you are lost. It becomes as mundane as doing the washing up or taking out the rubbish, just another commitment to fit into your already hectic day.

From here onwards you begin to see the act of smoking differently. You stop feeling like Mick Jagger or David Bowie and more like Deidre Barlow from Coronation Street. Social inclusion turns into social isolation. Smoking stops being an opportunity to leave the room and starts to be the reason why you leave the room. Your non-smoker friends tolerate it, but you can sense their disapproval and mild discomfort when you come back inside with breath stinking of fags. The self-confidence it once gave you is replaced with self-consciousness.

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This is about the time the physical impacts also begin to emerge. Cue the trademark chesty cough and croaky voice. Run for the bus? No thanks, I’ll wait for the next one and save on the embarrassing wheezing and panting. You may not notice that your clothes and bedsheets carry the smell of the stale smoke, but everyone else does— and this smell with never, ever be sexy.

This point is a crossroads for any smoker. They either attempt to quit and undo the damage done or accept the rather uncomfortable truth that (probably for the first time in their lives) they are addicted to a substance. The reality is it’s often a lot easier to accept the latter than to commit to quitting.

To quit smoking, you must actively expose yourself to both physical and emotional pain. You willingly strip yourself of the source of comfort, stress relief and that feeling of completeness you now depend on cigarettes for. You have to deal with discomfort of your throat repairing itself, the mood swings from nicotine withdrawal and the overeating to compensate for the void left.  You have to force yourself to stay inside, while others go out for a smoke, and never know what they spoke about. You must accept the loss of what inadvertently became a part of your identity.

Life becomes healthier, though ultimately more boring. This is why we still smoke.