‘I feel embarrassed to be addicted’: Why young people still take up smoking

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Louis says smoking is part of his university social life and can even be a “conversation starter”
By Aurelia Foster
Health reporter, BBC News

The government is planning one of the toughest smoking laws in the world, which would effectively ban it.

Smoking has been on the decline for two decades. In fact, more young people now vape than smoke tobacco.

But one recent estimates suggests that about 350 young people still take up smoking each day in the UK.

Among 15-year-olds, nearly one in 10 say they sometimes smoke.

So why does this deadly habit still hold appeal?

‘You can supplement with a vape and puff constantly’

Louis, 22, started smoking aged 19 while at university. “I thought I might as well give it a try,” he says.

The student from Barnstaple, Devon, is among the 11.6% of people aged 18-24 in the UK who smoke and says he mostly does it “on nights out drinking outside pubs”.

But his first cigarette was not his first taste of nicotine. He was already hooked on vapes.

He thinks lots of people his age are drawn to smoking by vaping, even though they were designed to help smokers quit.

He says having both options made it more “convenient” to get a nicotine fix.

“Because cigs are expensive you can supplement with a vape and puff on that constantly.”

There is, however, no strong evidence that vapes lead to smoking.

At least one study suggests vapers may be more likely to become smokers. But we don’t know that there is a direct link from one to the other, says Dr Sarah Jackson, from University College London’s Alcohol and Tobacco Research Group.

“It may be these people have a sort of propensity for nicotine use or risk-taking behaviour, so someone who tries vaping is also more likely to try smoking,” she says.

Dr Jackson’s recent research suggested there may have been a slight rise in young people taking up smoking during the pandemic, but she says rates are likely to be in decline again.

But “we can’t ever become complacent with smoking”, she adds.

One of her big concerns is that negative publicity about vaping may be putting smokers off using them as a quitting tool.

House parties

Eleanor, a 23-year old graduate from Widnes, Cheshire, says she is addicted to nicotine – first a smoker, now a vaper too.

Peering over at a stash of nicotine products on her windowsill, she says: “This is disgusting. When I got paid last month… I bought a bag of tobacco and all my skins and filters, I bought a vape and I bought a pack of cigs.”

Hers is a familiar tale. Aged 15, she was introduced to smoking at house parties.

And when she later left home to study, it became a regular vice.

“It just sort of went hand in hand with being at uni in Manchester,” she says.

Smoking was a big part of Eleanor’s university social life. Outdoor areas at house parties were always “way better” than inside, as her smoker friends would all spend the evening there, she says.

But during her university years, nicotine vapes became the big new thing, which she joined in with.

Rather than help her quit smoking, it had the opposite effect, she says.

“I think as a result of vaping more, I became more addicted to nicotine. And I then started to smoke more as well… but I wouldn’t mind what form it came in. I would vape, smoke cigs, rollies, snuffs even.”

Eleanor said the government’s plan to effectively ban smoking was “hypocritical”. She said excessive drinking, also a major cause of hospital admissions, seemed to be “acceptable”.

Eleanor says none of her smoker friends are worried about getting illnesses such as cancer

Louis says smoking is also a central part of his social gatherings.

“You want to see for yourself what’s going on. You get fear of missing out on a conversation.”

And he describes a type of “camaraderie” among smokers gathering outside pubs and clubs

“You go outside for a breather and a smoke and there are other people outside and you instantly make a connection, it’s actually a conversation starter.”

Peer pressure

Jo, a 22-year-old smoker from Sheffield says “peer pressure” was a factor.

Jo, who uses the pronoun “they” says: “Everyone I know smokes basically… I’ll go to meet with friends, they’ll be smoking.”

They think lots of young people feel “social pressure” when cigarettes are handed out.

“They’ll push a bit, they’re like, oh, go on. You’ll enjoy it.”

Jo says the planned ban was “definitely the right direction” but felt it would lead to an expansion of the black market.

“Because it’s so easy to get hold of them. The trade is so big that it won’t stop people”.

Jo also believes smoking is sometimes a “backlash against vaping”, by people concerned with their image.

“It’s like this new modern, obnoxious thing… It’s cool or retro.

“Because everyone smoked back in the 70s and people look back to those idols. I’ve got a great classic picture of David Bowie with a cigarette. I think people look back at that and think, oh, yeah, that was cool.”

Louis agrees that it’s partly an “image thing”.

“I think that’s why me and my friends do it – it goes hand in hand with it – sex, drugs and rock and roll type thing. You see the most famous musicians of old with cigarettes hanging out of their mouth.”

There is strong evidence the inclusion of smoking in films, on TV and in music videos is a risk-factor in young people taking up the habit. More recently, the depiction of smoking on social media has also been linked with uptake.

Ryan has smoked since he was 13 and says everyone he knew did it when he picked it up

But while the rich and famous may have some influence, it’s those closer to home who undoubtedly make the biggest impression.

Children whose parents smoke are up to four times more likely to take up smoking.

Ryan, 22, from Cumbria, has smoked since he was 13. He sometimes now vapes to top up nicotine hits from cigarettes.

“Everyone around me did it. The old lad did it, my nana did it, my grandad did it, all my mates did it and all their older brothers and sisters always did it.

“My grandfather would light his new fag with the dying embers of his last fag”.

Ryan thinks he would have been “less inclined” to smoke without this influence.

But he said he and his friends also did it for fun.

“Coming from Cumbria, it’s such a poor area, there was nothing to do. It was kind of something to cure the boredom, it was exciting… it was worth taking the risk for a bit of excitement and something to do.”

Ryan, a member of the Conservative party, thinks plans to ban smoking are unnecessary, due to the decline in rates. He thinks it would “revitalise” young people’s desire to smoke and make it more “exciting”.

Dr Jackson disagrees.

“There’s a risk that if you take your foot off the gas, then people forget about just how bad smoking is for you.”

Smoking was “uniquely harmful”, she says. And she thinks without more government action, the decline in smoking may stall.

Despite how harmful smoking is, Dr Jackson believes “young people tend to be more likely to discount the health risks as being something that is not going to affect them anytime soon”.

Eleanor said eventually she wants to give up smoking in case it affects her fertility.

Also, she says, because it is “embarrassing to be addicted to something”.

But she’s not worried about illnesses such as cancer. “That’s never occurred to me or anyone that I am friends with.

“It’s weird cause obviously we’re also the generation that’s obsessed with the gym… though I think that’s about vanity.”

Jo said they were not worried about health when they began smoking, even though they have family members who have died as a result of smoking.

“I feel like my generation or people my age are very much in the moment.

“I have friends and I hear them coughing. You can hear their lungs deteriorating already and they’re my age, but it’s not something you think about when you’re 18, 19.”

“I know about the health risks,” says Louis. “The risk of cancer, emphysema, COPD, but obviously I think if I do it now while I’m young and get it out of the way it won’t be that bad.

“I think I’ll give up eventually”.

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