My best friend recently picked up the habit of smoking. At first it was only in very specific moments, on top of a hill while looking down at Athens or while watching the sunset from the wall in Ano Poli. Then she would pack out her carefully stored package of Marlboro cigarettes, light one and smile. Now, I completely trust my friend but I was still a little worried about my best friend. In today’s school we hear too many stories about people who start smoking for fun and before they even know find it almost impossible to quit. Back then I asked her, knowing that she comes from quite a religious and conservative family, decided to pick up smoking. “I don’t know.”, she said. “I think for me it’s freedom. It’s being an adult.”
That phrase gave me a lot to think about. Obviously, smoking is bad and it harms your body and it shortens your life, these are common facts that everybody is aware of, but being an 18-year-old who just moved out from home, I kind of felt like I understand. But why do we feel this way, knowing how much these sticks of tobacco are hurting us? Is it reasonable to say that cigarettes symbolize freedom and emancipation for us young people, especially young girls? Or is it just an illusion we create for ourselves in order to find excuses for a bad habit?
Something that we’re not always aware of is that cigarettes, or being more general tobacco, is something that has existed longer than most cultural phenomenons we still see in our modern civilisation. It had been used by Native Americans for ceremonies decades before it even came to the Western world. In early history doctors even claimed that is a good painkiller and relaxant and might even be used as a cure for cancer (ironic, isn’t it?). By the mid-19th century tobacco in shape of cigarettes and cigars had been spread throughout the whole world and became an important, celebrated symbol in art, prose and especially in movies.
Hollywood established the cigarette as something that is connected to independence and sophistication and society accepted it with pleasure. Young boys watched their fathers and grandfathers smoke and adapted it as a sign of male authority, manhood but also as a way to bond friendships and show hospitality. Especially cigars vibrated power and even dominance, with the best example being Churchill, who had barely been seen without a cigar in his mouth that clarified his status and position in every situation. Sometimes the smoking of a cigar was even associated with defiance and bravery, which Fidel Castro was the best portrayer of.
Just like most things through the past decades, this was a double standard though. While cigarettes and cigars glorified men, until quite a bit into the 20th century they were a taboo for women. A smoking woman is indecent both in moral and sexual matters, not to mention that she is also a threat for a man and his manhood. This absurd mindset only started shifting around the 1920s, when the war had an impact on society’s perception of females and the social attitude of the so-called “new women” started taking over. Later that century, in 1968, the cigarette industry even used the females’ fight for emancipation: Virginia Slims came out on the market. This cigarette brand used the slogan “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” and the portrait of an elegant, contemporary woman to capture and match the empowerment movement of the US in the 60s. Women were finally liberating themselves from ridiculous restrictions and daring to do things that were considered normal for men, with smoking being at the top of that list.
Having talked enough about the past, let us get to the present. American women have won their fight, however, cigarettes are still prohibited in some places in our world. Bhutan, which is located in the south of Asia, doesn’t allow the distribution of cigarettes in any stores or markets. This shows us again that, in fact, smoking is a privilege and a freedom that many of us exercise on a daily basis.
Accordingly, do I think that it is okay for my best friend to smoke cigarettes because she is simply exercising a right that the generations before us have fought for and because she simply wants to match the coolness and sophistication that society connects to smoking? Sadly, it’s not that simple, since by smoking you are also building your own mental, physical and material cage.
Smoking makes you trapped and dependant on one small thing. Only in the US there are around 50 million people who are addicted to tobacco products, meaning that they cannot live their life properly without the consumption of these goods. Putting this into the historical context makes the contradiction quite clear: people need to live in freedom in order to consume tobacco, but then throw their whole freedom away by making themselves depend on it. It’s not only unhealthy to get joy from something like a cigarette, but this happiness is also completely chemical and hormonal and therefore has lots of consequences when being withdrawn. When not smoking, tobacco consumers can feel frustration, anger, depression and anxiety.
Furthermore, most smokers, especially the younger ones, start smoking because of the pressure from their peer group. They also want to be considered cool and they also want to be part of the bonding experience, so they ignore their health concerns and follow the group. Again, comparing this to what has happened in the last century, this is actually the opposite of emancipation and independence. You are dependant on the opinion of others and “fail” to follow your own path.
Cigarettes not only bring you into a physical state of dependance, but also an emotional one. An adult smoker who smokes half a package a day in Germany will spend about 105 Euros after one month, around 1260 Euros after one year and around 12600 Euros after ten years. That is enough money to buy two good cars. Smoking prevents you from investing money into things that support your freedom and independence, it makes you limit yourself and create your own boundaries.
My best friend is an intelligent and grown up person, which is exactly why I can’t just tell her “Smoking is bad, stop”. Even after doing my research on this topic, it is still difficult to say whether her reasons to smoke are justifiable. Is her habit an exercise of freedom or is it its limitation? In the end of the day, I can only say that the phenomenon of smoking is so complex and deeply rooted into our society that there is no way to generalise the reasons and morality of smoking. Every person who chooses to smoke needs to be able to live with the contradiction that comes with it, and once you have accepted that, you can try to make a reasonable decision.