I started smoking, I guess, somewhere between 12 and 14 years old. The uncertainty lies in the definition of starting. Neither of my parents smoked, and their disapproval of the habit was complete, at least for us kids. As a result, I would sneak a fag away from home every so often but didn’t reach anything like a habit until I was 16 or 17.
Everyone who has ever let cigarette smoke past their lips and into their lungs knows one thing: it is an awful experience at first. This is quite unlike every other addictive chemical, whose initial effects are, at worst, boring. So how does anyone get beyond that to addiction to tobacco?
For one thing, it’s helpful to understand the status of smoking in the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up. It was everywhere. On the street, in bars and restaurants, in elevators and doctors’ waiting rooms. There were even adds claiming that such-and-such a brand was the most “doctor recommended.” People would arrive at your house for a dinner date, pull out a cigarette, light up, and only then look around for an ashtray; and there it was, invariably, in every house.
I still remember vividly the smell of stale smoke and alcohol even in our house after any of the dinner parties my parents would throw. I thought it was wonderful. During holidays, a favorite uncle would be a house guest and spend his days sitting on the living room couch drinking rum-and-cokes and smoking cigarette after cigarette. I never heard any objection from my father, who was his older brother.
So, the answer is pretty simple: kids started smoking to look grown-up. Did it give you coughing fits and make you light-headed and slightly nauseous? Well, that was apparently the price of sophistication. There was no shortage of older kids to laugh at your discomfort, but they would be quick to remind you that as your body became accustomed to the poison you were giving it, the unpleasantness would pass and you would begin to enjoy it. In my case, it had the added attraction of being rebellious. It was a curious and irresistible combination of fitting in with adults and rebelling against them at one and the same time.
It was a thoroughly ingrained and respected part of society. When I was in Basic Training in 1966, we would occasionally get a smoke break. “Burn ‘em!” the drill sergeant would shout without warning, and within seconds cigarettes were pulled out of God knows where and the whole squad was enveloped in smoke. It was such a welcome respite that some guys who had never smoked started up just to get in on a treat that otherwise left them standing around with nothing to do.
Now, of course, everything is different. You can’t smoke anywhere indoors. If you want to grab a quick smoke at work or at a restaurant, you have to skulk around among the dumpsters in the back. Even at home people are so sensitive to the stink of it (something we never even noticed in the old days) that they sit outside their own homes to indulge.
But kids still start smoking, and adults still continue. Why?
For the same reasons. The glaring difference is that, as fitting in with the adult world has diminished as a motive to almost nothing, rebellion has burgeoned to displace it, and peer pressure has maintained its role. Add to that a plethora of new ways to indulge the tobacco habit, many without disturbing the air of others, and kids can feel in on some technology adults are woefully ignorant of.
Still, the numbers are encouragingly down as tobacco in any form has lost its sheen of sophistication. I quit 24 years ago as this transition was gaining steam. It was not an easy process, for society or for individuals like myself. I was lucky to be able to quit, luckier still that I had not already damaged my body irreparably.
So what’s the point of this rather long-winded disquisition? There are lessons here about human nature.
All ideological blather aside, we are a social species. Irrevocably, gloriously, abjectly, and mercilessly social. Everything we do is informed by it, but not always obviously; sometimes it’s in invisible, even insidious ways. Conformity and rebellion, far from being diametric opposites, are hopelessly entangled in complex ways, because our social memberships are complex and overlapping. We can always make micro adjustments to that jumble of loyalties to justify almost any behavior, even behavior that is clearly pathological.
Older adults love to make fun of rebellious teens all dressing the same despite their cult of non-conformity, but we could say the same for ourselves.