Smoking kills, so why are some young people still doing it?

August 13, 2015
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Like many public spaces – bars, cafes, train stations – Melbourne’s RMIT University recently became a smoke-free environment, and the city itself has banned smoking during daylight hours. But this hasn’t completely banished young smokers.

They’re still out there, clutching their durries on city corners just off campus, surreptitiously sucking down smoke in between lectures and tutes. They’re street smart, educated and worldly; they know full well smoking is detrimental to their health. So why are they still doing it?

“I don’t know!” is Tom Dillane’s immediate response when probed. The 28-year-old post-grad journalism student admits his on-again, off-again habit is somewhat inexplicable.

“I don’t know why I do it - I think it’s for odd reasons,” Tom says. “It’s, like, something to do – like a social prop or something. It’s comforting to have it there.”

Like many of us, Tom smoked his first experimental cigarette in his early teens, and took up the habit semi-regularly at around 18 years old. He kept it up for a while, then quit for a few years, and took it up again about two years ago.

“I’m not a heavy smoker,” Tom says, referring to the single pack of tailor-mades he goes through every week or two. Rather, he’s a social smoker who associates cigarettes with “coffee and booze”. He often binges on half a pack on a night out drinking, but he doesn’t smoke much at all during the week.

Tom is a minority in his social circle – most of his friends don’t smoke. And Quit Victoria’s director, Dr Sarah White, says smoking rates among young adults are actually at a 30-year low.

“In 1980, 47 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds were regular smokers. By 2010, this dropped to 22 per cent,” Sarah tells Hijacked.

I really like how it justifies you sitting somewhere and doing nothing. If you have a fag, it’s like a social justification for solitude.

So what made Tom re-embrace his vice after a long hiatus? His outlook on it is philosophical.

“I really like how it justifies you sitting somewhere and doing nothing. If you have a fag, it’s like a social justification for solitude.”

He says his addiction to smoking is more mental than physical.

“I’ve never actually had a physical craving for a cigarette. I don’t think I’ve got a very addictive personality, but mentally I find it hard to quite [to quit] because I enjoy them,” Tom says.

And yet, smoking generally makes him feel “not very good, to be honest”. Yep, he’s well aware of how contradictory he sounds.

“Generally I probably feel worse after [having a cigarette], but I just like the process of doing it. It’s something about the physical act more than the feeling.”

Data from the Tobacco in Australia online resource shows three broad elements that influence people’s uptake of smoking, particularly when they’re young: intrinsic factors such as people’s sense of self-definition, curiosity, or aspirations to be seen as “adult”; extrinsic factors such as the influence of friends and family, resulting in a perception of what’s “normal”; and environmental factors, such as cultural context, and pricing and availability of cigarettes.

In other words, it seems young people start smoking because they think it’s cool and grown-up, because their mates or parents do, or because they’re influenced by movies, the internet, and easy access. It’s also a way of relieving stress – something we can all relate to.

The key to bringing down smoking rates is to change broader social norms around smoking, including the perception that it is common and accepted.

Meanwhile, Sarah says expanding public smoke-free areas, as RMIT and the City of Melbourne have done, is helping to discourage people from lighting up.

“The key to bringing down smoking rates is to change broader social norms around smoking, including the perception that it is common and accepted,” Sarah says.

And she points out there are numerous tangible reasons for young people to consider giving up the darts.

“Quitting is not only the best thing you can do for your health, [but] a nicotine addiction also takes up an awful lot of money that could be better spent on other things,” she says.

Tom’s concern for his health fluctuates.

“I go through periods of being worried about how bad it is for me, and then I reassure myself with comforting stats, like if you quit in your 20s you’ll have the same life expectancy.”

But he concedes, “I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard that.”

Meanwhile, his future outlook oscillates even during the course of our brief conversation. When we first start chatting he says his recently laid plan is to accept the fact that he may smoke “a little bit” for the rest of his life. But later he wavers, saying, “I want to stop, I think I will stop pretty soon.”

Sarah offers these words of advice: “Working out why you want to quit, setting a quit date, and having some tactics in place to deal with cravings, are great ways to set yourself up for success. Young people looking to quit can find lots of tips on our website.”

For now, Tom seems reasonably content with his intermittent habit. And only he can decide whether to continue to light up, or to butt out for good.

Phoebe Hartley

Phoebe makes films, eats dumplings and studies journalism. She tweets sporadically at @phoebehartley.