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We Asked Young People Why They Still Smoke

Smoking rates are down and the research is more damning than ever, but a bunch of anxious 20-somethings are still at it.

Cigarette smoking in the US continues to plunge, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2005 and 2015, the rate plummeted from 21 percent to 15 percent of adults, falling an impressive 1.7 percentage points between 2014 and 2015. This suggests the decline is happening at a relatively rapid clip. And of course that's a good thing, since that shit kills you—even if you're smoking less than one a day. Despite all this, hosts of young people are still lighting up. Why? We asked them directly.


Melissa, 28, Manhattan, NY, Sales

Have you ever tried to quit? The last time I quit, it was because I got really bad bronchitis for legitimately six months and felt terrible, so it forced me to quit. I do think that I could quit if I really wanted to; the problem is I never really feel like I want to stop. I always told myself I wouldn't smoke past the age of 30, but we'll see.

Do you think starting young had any impact? I feel like since I started smoking at such a young age, it feels somewhat ingrained in me. It's just something I've always done in my teenage and now adult life.

Erik, 30, Phoenix, AZ, Software Engineer

How and why did you start smoking?
I started smoking at 16 while working at an ice skating rink, and only the cool kids got to go on breaks, and they were smoke breaks. I wanted a break, too. When they gave me a cigarette, that was a life-changing movement. Not for the better, obviously. 

Why haven't you quit?
It's a tough habit to kick. I've battle anxiety and depression most of my life, and cigarettes were something reliable that I could depend on.

Are the consequences in the back of your mind when you smoke?
Yes. It's a terrible habit that I wish I'd never started. My father's a smoker, and I can see the effect it's had on him. I think about it, but I don't stop. Maybe I just lack the self-control, or I haven't felt the impact enough to push me over the edge. I tried quitting dozens of times. And I don't feel like I'm prepared right now. 

Sean, 27, Queens, NY, Musician and Coffee Roaster

How old were you when you started?
I was 14, and I did it to fit in with the older punk kids at first. I kept smoking because of the feeling, the initial head rush you get from smoking...but also the feeling of a separate community from the conventions of society. 

What do you mean?
It's a community where everyone knows it's bad, but universally ignores the health risks. It gives me a false sense of security to have one every now and again. 

Have you lost anyone to smoking-related illness?
Yes, my grandmother and an older family friend, though they aren't what I would consider the poster-children for smoking kills, because they lived to an older age. 

Kate, 21, Seattle, WA, Designer 

What purpose does smoking serve for you?
I think the only positive I get from it is that it's calming and kind of levels me out. With that said, I do think there are much healthier ways to get calm and relax.

Do you ever think about the health consequences?
I think when you're young and in your 20's, you don't really think about illness or death. Of course, I think about it, and I am a natural worrier. But that kind of stuff seems so far off that you don't really think it could happen to you.

What would it take for you to quit?
My boyfriend doesn't find it attractive, and I would much rather have him around than smoke. If he were to ask me to never smoke another cigarette again, I would do it. 

Jay, 27, Brooklyn, NY, Salon Director

What did your parents think when you started?
When I first started at 16, my mom actually smoked at the time as well, so she would buy me cigarettes, since I was too young to buy cigarettes at most places myself. 

After 11 years, do you feel like you can quit? Or rather, do you want to?
I do feel like I can quit at any time, however, I still don't have that motivation or drive to actually do so. To be honest, I don't really put much thought into whether smoking a cigarette is affecting my health negatively. If I see an advertisement on TV or in the newspaper, I usually quickly glance and then look away. I do know someday I will eventually quit, but I'm not ready today.  

Ravi, 29, Queens, Designer

How did it all begin?
I started smoking at 17, after high school graduation. I thought it was cool, something grown-ups did, and it held sex appeal, represented maturity. I remember my first cigarette was walking around the block in my neighborhood, I pulled it out of my pocket, looking around to see if my neighbors would see me...I quickly lit it with matches, and it was not the coolest thing. It was disgusting. So nasty I began to gag while I swooshed the smoke in my mouth. 

And yet, here you are…
It became a habit. Sometimes, you don't even think about whether you want one; you just grab the pack and pull a cigarette out. It's a natural thing.  

What do you smoke?
Cigarettes when I'm outdoors, vaping only in winter time, when I can't go outside my house or open a window. I don't get much of a buzz off vaping, so those sessions always tend to be much, much longer. 

What's the benefit?
The escape from reality; it takes you to this brief happy place, where everything will be alright.

What would it take for you to quit? 
I would need to be financially and mentally stable. I need my issues and my stress to be over.  

Keenan, 31, Los Angeles, CA, Television Industry 

Did you grow up around cigarettes?
My dad had been a long-time smoker, but quit when I was born and communicated for most of my adolescence how bad it was to start. But the novelty of being able to purchase them on my 18th birthday lead to me picking up a pack of Djarum clove cigarettes for myself and some friends. For about six months, we'd repeat that habit on occasion before finally switching to the real thing, a pack of deliciously smooth Camel Turkish Silvers. It's been a constant since then, though for the last four years I've been smoking American Spirits. 

Have you ever tried to quit?
I've had a few breaks peppered in, but for the most part I've been smoking for the better part of 13 years now. I told myself for a while that I'd quit before my 30's, and had a few solid periods without smoking or with alternative options—gums, patches, rubber-band-snapping, the whole lot.  

What was that like?
I started to get my lungs back enough to know the difference, and there were a lot of other health aspects that I recognized. I'm just a weak person when it comes to those little bastards, and ultimately, I'm not ready to give them up just yet. I never really found something to substitute, or perhaps more importantly, I never had the real desire to give it up. 

There's something about taking a drag of a cigarette that puts me at ease. Yet, I know that physical activity and working out would be easier without it. I know my skin would age better, and the smell would not be in my clothes, and so on. I know all the benefits of quitting. I just haven't gotten to a point where those prospects outweigh the valued aspects of why I smoke. 

Do you wish you never started?
I suppose if I could go back and never have gotten those cloves I would, and I genuinely hope to not pass this habit along to anyone at any point. But even though it's almost embarrassingly contradictory, I just love cigarettes. 

MJ, 27, Boston, MA, Bartender 

With everything we know about the adverse health effects of smoking, what do you think it is that keeps you lighting up?
I view it as picking my battles. Given that our society is saturated with negative health and environmental impacts, from the toxic foods we eat to toxic air we breath and unsustainable energy sources, I see the personal health effects of smoking as relatively unimportant. 

Do you feel like you get anything positive from smoking? 
Smoking can be grounding, a chance to blow off steam and avoid flipping out on some extreme asshole customers I have to deal with. 

Think you could quit if you wanted to? 
I plan to quit when I'm pregnant. Beyond that though, if there was some kind of effort amongst anti-smoking campaigns that redirected their campaign money into organizing strategies that address environmental and health issues in poor communities and communities of color, I would definitely be into that, and put my money there instead. 

Rose, 25, Manhattan, Caregiver

What do you smoke, and how frequently?
I smoke Newports—it's my wild card. Today, I smoke between 5 to 10 cigarettes a day, but there was a time in my life when I was chain smoking over a pack to two packs a day. I was doing a lot of partying then, and smoking was a huge part of the ritual of getting drunk or high.

Why keep smoking when you know it's bad for you?
My grandfather, whom I was very close to, just died of lung cancer a little over a month ago. I guess it's just one of those things where you just assume it will never happen to you. I have no idea why I still smoke given the horrible health consequences. 

Shanty, 25, Arlington, MA, Customer Service Rep.

How old were you when you started smoking?
I was about 23 when I started smoking regularly, when I was in an outpatient program. During our breaks, we would go outside and I would ask for a cigarette. It was a stressful time, and having a cigarette with others was relaxing. I started bringing my own pack to share.

With everything we know about the adverse health effects of smoking, why keep doing it?
Sometimes the health risks don't seem super present, even though I know they are there. When I grab a cigarette, I am not thinking long-term. I need something quick that is stress-relieving.

Do you feel like you get anything positive from smoking?
No.

What would it take, do you think, for you to quit? 
I am not sure. I have quit for months at a time, but I go back when I've had a particularly bad day. I think if I had better coping skills, I may be less likely to smoke. I do have success when trying not to smoke, but I am easily tempted when I see a friend with a cigarette. 

William, 23, Brooklyn, NY, Owner of Tradition Vapes

Why'd you start smoking? 
I smoked my first cigarette when I was 12 because everyone in my life had told me not to ever, under any circumstances, smoke. Even my father, a 40-year-smoker, told me never to do as he had done. Naturally, I immediately smoked a cigarette the first opportunity I got. 

Do you still smoke cigarettes even though you own a vaping company?
As the business picked up, I found myself smoking more cigarettes. I know it sounds crazy, but the stress of running a company that was growing too fast for its own good drove me to the back of the warehouse taking a quarter pack of Reds to the face. At this juncture, I'm at a cigarette a day, sometimes two, and vaping regularly. I will most likely stay at this level of nicotine intake because it works for me.

Why smoke and vape at the same time?
Working in the vape industry makes me want to smoke. It's not even the stress anymore. It separates me from the "hardcore vapers" in my industry. While around people in my industry, it is highly taboo to smoke. This is why I do it on my own time.

What would it take for you to quit? 
I have been back and fourth between quitting completely, but regardless, I will continue to vape. I take in so much nicotine daily at this point, I would have to lock myself in my apartment and detox in solitude. 

And then what?
A day or so after I quit everything, to say I'd become the devil is an understatement. It's to the point where a few friends of mine came up with the idea for a reality show, where we put an "hour counter" on the bottom of the screen and deprive me of nicotine for a day. We'd then lock me, or other vapers and smokers in a room with our contestants and see what happens. MTV has not returned any of our calls.