Is Smoking Making a Comeback?

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The pandemic brought uncertainty; humans find comfort in routine, and with the upheaval of routine caused by the various lockdowns, the first response for many was to simply create a new one. Being forced to stay at home with little else to do, we began to turn our focus inwards and evaluate the way we lived our lives. Out of this, mainstream wellness culture was born.

Residents of TikTok will know that the biggest trend to come out of the pandemic was ‘That Girl’ and the ‘Clean Girl’ aesthetic. Modeled on a combination of Scandi style and off-duty model minimalism, the trend aestheticises a life lived in constant pursuit of health, productivity and routine. From getting up at 5am to work out, journal and meditate to a perfectly slicked bun, the trend is nothing more than consumerism and unattainable standards under the pretense of wholesome wellness – and people are beginning to reject it. After the mass social isolation of the pandemic, and an overall burnout from a constantly negative news cycle, people are seeking a remedy, and it’s not $20 green juices and skincare routines. Bored of toxic wellness culture, we seem to be entering the era of the ‘feral girl’. It’s the heroin chic of the 90s and indie sleaze of the 2010s. It’s messy, it’s unhinged, and it’s the antithesis to wellness culture. 2000s party culture is back, and with it, smoking.

From cinema to celebrities, smoking seems to be weaving its way back into our lives. Interestingly though, this evidence doesn’t seem to be reflected in official statistics (yet). Aside from the first increase in cigarette sales in 20 years occurring in 2020, smoking rates have remained on the decline. So is this just sensationalized nonsense, or a shift that has only occurred in the digital realms? Let’s see what Gen Z Americans have to say: “Smoking is back,” 24-year-old Isabel Rower told the New York Times. “We’re having a very sexy and ethereal 1980s revival, and smoking is part of that. Similarly, 25-year-old Kat Frey said “A lot of people I know are posting pictures doing it. I’m doing it. It’s having its moment for sure.”

Can this increase in smoking be attributed to what we’re seeing in the media? More and more celebrities have been seen smoking; after years of consciously holding green juices and yoga mats to avoid being cancelled, many of them are returning to Old Hollywood’s best loved prop. Lily Rose Depp posed for the paparazzi in Cannes puffing on a cigarette, Anna Taylor-Joy is snapped smoking nearly everywhere she goes, and 20-year-old Jenna Ortega was photographed smoking, much to the public disapproval of her mom. Despite restrictions, smoking depictions are only increasing on the big screen and streaming services. Seven of the ten best picture nominees for 2023 contained tobacco imagery, as did nearly two-thirds of all Oscar-nominated films.

Society just can’t seem to shake the concept that smoking is cool. “It’s just a cool thing,”“Beautiful people do it, really talented people do it, it goes with things that I admire,” said N.Y.U student, Fernanda Amis. Though these attitudes are certainly the product of pop culture, the resurgence of smoking among young people may also be rooted in something darker. The generation most exposed to the media’s glamorous depiction of smoking is, of course, the same generation that has grown up at the forefront of some of the world’s most traumatic events, burdened with existential anxiety. Evidence also suggests that a nihilistic, ‘f*ck it’, attitude is at play.

So is luxury fatalism to blame? The growing collective feeling that everything has gone to sh*t and there’s no real recourse to change it may be causing people to revert to their old unhealthy coping mechanisms. This nihilistic attitude is reflected in the resurgence of indie-sleaze, the replacement of 2021’s “clean-girl” aesthetic with “goblin mode” and the notion of being “feral”, which seems to support the idea that young people are getting bored of wellness culture. “We all have this flamboyant death wish, if you will. I think everyone is like, ‘What’s the point?’”, 25-year-old Ryan Matera told the New York Times. “Part of it is that it almost feels like rejection of wellness culture.” And it’s not just young people that are becoming disillusioned. In an exchange with another artist, David Hockney wrote “I too am BORED with WELLNESS. The concept seems ridiculous and too bossy for me, I’m still smoking, and ENJOYING it ENORMOUSLY.”

Interestingly, we seem to be stuck in a healthy/unhealthy binary, and the rejection of one trend only leads to the rebirth of another. Taking the glamour out of smoking reveals that beautiful, cool people are still beautiful and cool without a cigarette in hand, just like ugly losers that smoke are still ugly losers. What’s more, the perception that we smoke because we enjoy it hasn’t gone anywhere. Because of how fast nicotine is absorbed by the body, smokers are in a near-constant state of withdrawal. What is happening when you smoke a cigarette is not pleasure or enjoyment – it’s merely relief from a problem the cigarettes themselves have caused.

Regardless, there’s got to be a middle ground between the unsustainable, toxic positivity of wellness culture and this equally unsustainable hedonistic nihilism. When we’re young, we tend not to think too much about the bad side of smoking – the smell, the cost, the health risks – because we plan to stop one day when we’re ‘ready’. But when that time comes we’re already well and truly addicted to the drug and our fear of stopping gets in the way of getting our freedom back.

There are plenty of other ways to be anti-wellness. Smoking doesn’t add to our hedonism, it doesn’t enhance our social life, so why bother? The only people who benefit from this way of thinking are big tobacco. There are plenty more ways to rebel.

By Emily Kate

Natalie Clays Allen Carr Facilitator

Natalie @ Allen Carr


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