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The Romanticization of Smoking in Western Media
Why is the world so addicted to smoking? Despite its deadly consequences, with smokers living at least ten years less than nonsmokers, smoking has had a heavy influence on our lives throughout the decades. From the Beatles to Grease, and Marilyn Monroe to Pulp Fiction, historically, smoking has had a significant place in Western popular culture. Presently, provocative smoking culture lives on in the media/entertainment industry. The growing appeal of “vintage” and “alternative” aesthetics on social media brings forth a resurgence of nicotine glamorization. Both influencers and fans alike have been recreating popular photos that involve nicotine-based products, sparking controversy on all sides of the internet. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder: when did the fixation on smoking even begin?
Back in the nineteenth century, cigarettes were first marketed as luxury goods. They were pricey, hard to make, and only available to the European elite. Until the industrial revolution made cigarette manufacturing easier, cigarettes were valuable and prized possessions. This “classy” reputation then led to cigarettes becoming a status symbol amongst Western society, so it was no surprise that their popularity flourished after industrialization.
Another factor that largely contributed to cigarettes’ success was commercialization. Ironically, many well-known companies such as Marlboro and Camel were successful in promoting their “health benefits.” Their ads typically involved portraits of big-name movie and pop stars looking healthy and full of life next to a pack of cigarettes. This strategy not only boosted the validity of the practice, but also provided people with the hope that they too could achieve high status and health. All they had to do was smoke a cigarette.
While the mid to late twentieth century was known for being a golden era of music and film, it also happened to be the golden era of smoking. Screen icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe further popularized smoking by making it appear sophisticated and glamorous in the media. Popular musicians in the music industry, namely the Beatles, were well known for their smoking and drug habits. Smoking had become such a common practice in the Western world that the rates grew frighteningly high, with about half of the American population smoking on a day-to-day basis.
Around the late fifties and early sixties, research scientists and highly renowned doctors began publishing papers on new findings. It turned out that smoking was related to a variety of different cancers. This came as a shock to most of the world and encouraged the upper class, which was composed of many rich and powerful men, to quit smoking. The lack of rich men consuming tobacco products led to smoking becoming a pastime associated with two things that middle class men feared: women and poverty. By the late seventies the smoking rate in the U.S. had gone down to only about thirty percent.
However, our past misconception of smoking as a factor in glamor and social status has been hard to forget. Even today we often see many “cool” and powerful figures in the media smoking cigarettes. The music industry has played a big role in today’s image of smoking, specifically in the hip hop, alternative, and rock genres. Lana Del Rey, an alternative-pop artist who draws on retro American themes, has inspired much of the “dark feminine” and “coquette” subcultures we see on social media. A lot of the content featuring these subcultures often include aestheticized pictures of people smoking, a nod to vintage trends and Lana Del Rey’s consumption of cigarettes. Because of the popularity of these aesthetics, many influencers have imitated them in order to keep up with the algorithm. Influencers are called influencers for a reason, and many netizens have complained about how the majority of influencer’s audiences are impressionable young teens who are susceptible to the fatalities of smoking. In fact, researchers found that teenagers that have seen people smoking on social media were twice as likely to smoke in the future than those who hadn’t. Another industry that actively contributes to cigarette promotion is the film industry. Truth Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to educating teens about smoking, found that nine out of the ten movies nominated at the 2023 Oscars included tobacco imagery.
But there may be hope for the future. Studies have found that smoking rates have declined in the past couple of years since the pandemic. There were about 1.73 million less teens smoking in 2021 versus 2019. In recent research, it was found that the leading cause for non-smoking in teens was “health issues.” It appears that the years of detailed cancer explanations in health classes are paying off, as teens exposed to the consequences of smoking are more likely to think of it as harmful to society and their health. Media movements and posts against smoking and tobacco use are also making an impact on lowering teen smoking rates. So, can the future generations write a new chapter? One which does not feature smoking as the sidekick? With all of these promising statistics, there is certainly enough to fuel the hope that humanity’s current trajectory will push us past our old habits and into a smoke-free world.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: 20th Century Tobacco Advertisements.” National Museum of American History, 17 Mar. 2014, americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2014/03/smoke-gets-in-your-eyes-20th-century-tobacco-advertisements.html. Accessed 3 June 2023.
“Smoking - a Culture of Dependence, Native American Influence, and Mass Consumption | Britannica.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2023, www.britannica.com/topic/smoking-tobacco/A-social-and-cultural-history-of-smoking. Accessed 3 June 2023.
HealthDay. “Social Media Has Big Impact on People Taking up Smoking, Vaping.” US News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 2022, www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2022-07-13/social-media-has-big-impact-on-people-taking-up-smoking-vaping#:~:text=By%20analyzing%2029%20previously%20published%20studies%2C%20researchers%20found,future%2C%20compared%20to%20those%20who%20never%20viewed%20it. Accessed 3 June 2023.
“Tobacco Imagery Featured in More Oscar-Nominated Movies This Year, Including 70% of Best Picture Nominees.” Truth Initiative, 2023, truthinitiative.org/research-resources/tobacco-pop-culture/tobacco-imagery-featured-more-oscar-nominated-movies-year. Accessed 3 June 2023.
“Smoking Rates Decline Steeply in Teens in 2021.” Truth Initiative, 2021, truthinitiative.org/research-resources/traditional-tobacco-products/smoking-rates-decline-steeply-teens-2021. Accessed 3 June 2023.