Upon arriving in London, I was immediately struck by the sheer amount of individuals who smoked on a regular basis. Even at the Sofar Sounds shows I attend, whenever a break would take place, countless individuals would pour out of the back entrance to smoke a cigarette in the alley. And, I have always wondered, how could there be such a large concentration of individuals who so regularly consumed narcotics in such a wealthy country?
From my understanding of political economy, it always seemed that the regular consumption of narcotics had been largely exclusive to individuals in lower socioeconomic brackets. If Black Marxism applies to modern society, and social classes are truly drawn between racial lines, then it would explain why the opioid crisis in the United States primarily affects minorities. Or, at least, perhaps it affects all facets of society (see: Penn’s cocaine problem) but is only classified as an addiction when individuals do not have the resources to address its adverse effects.
On one hand, it seems to me that anti-smoking campaigns in the United States has causes decreases in the smoking rate of the population. But, on the other hand, it seems that the vaping rate has gone up proportionally to the decrease in the smoking rate, especially among younger populations. This isn’t even mentioning the other drug problems that have come up recently. Such trends are especially odd when considering the socioeconomic affluence of countries such as the United States, of course, taking into account the tremendous income inequality.
This makes me ask: what is the drive to smoke cigarettes?
I reflect on my own experiences when answering, not that I would classify myself as a smoker; I have cycled through, at most, two dozen cigarettes throughout my entire life. I would only smoke in social settings when the availability rose or on my porch during especially sad nights. But, the motivations remains the same: I want to conform to the aesthetic that is set through the culture industry. I understand that smoking is bad for me, but I want to challenge those individuals who set what is right and wrong in society. I want to show others that I have the right to destroy my own body.
Such is the aesthetic I wish to conform. I find it is ironic that my desires to show individuals that I do not care is motivated by a care for the opinions of others. After all, I would not have the need to challenge others if I was not bothered by others in the first place. Of course, there is the feeling that is associated with smoking cigarettes, but that feeling could be replicated throughout other means. From my understanding of smoking, it seems that the desire to smoke is not motivated from the biochemical effects of drugs on the mind but from the broader social need for identity.
There is smoking, the aesthetic and smoking, the lifestyle.
This is the difference between someone who smokes and a smoker. Especially in London, where I would see countless individuals smoking on my way to class every morning, I have never come to the realization that these individuals smoke on a regular basis. I only see them momentarily, and in that moment, the adverse effects of smoking cannot be seen. One cigarette if not horrible, but a lifetime of smoking is problematic. There are smokers when they are twenty, and then there are smokers when they are fifty, and then there are smokers at the moment before death. Even if they all have a part of them that yearns for death, a single individual conceptualizes the sacrifice to their life differently.
Whenever I smoke, I do so in consideration that I will relinquish my capacity to run for the next day, and if I have lifted on the same day, that I have sacrificed my gains from my previous workout. But, the other symptoms associated with smoking are beyond my comprehension, such as yellow teeth and the loss of smell and taste. Of course, there is cancer, but I smoke knowing that I am putting myself at risk for cancer. I do not want cancer necessarily, but I am okay with dying in the abstract sense. There is a part of me that yearns to die when I am still young. But, yellow teeth? Being unable to taste the brightness of Kenyan coffee? No thanks.
Obviously, there are social elements that I cannot take into account. There does exist a culture within the smoke breaks after morning coffee or between sets in a concert. This is a culture that is exclusive to regular smokers, a culture which I will never understand because I do not participate in such a ritual. But, similar to many irrational decisions in our life, if we orient a community around irrational behaviors, then it becomes ever more difficult to escape the cycle of irrationality when we have constructed our social life around our irrational tendencies. But, again, this is something that I will never understand.
If the appeal of smoking is to have the aesthetic of approaching death, then it would seem that anti-smoking campaigns, which emphasize this fact, does not necessarily address the core root of smoking. If I were to truly address the causes of smoking, I would focus on what the desire to die sacrifices in life. Sure, it is cool to want to die. Wanting to die is cool. I share such a sentiment. But, decreased appetite, shortened (and unpleasant) breath, and fatigue? How am I suppose to live up to the aesthetic of constantly challenging the status of quo of society if I cannot even run 50 meters without wheezing?
The aesthetic and lifestyle of smoking has been thus separated because it is the aesthetic that is tastefully edgy and the lifestyle that is not. But perhaps it is time to finally integrate them. There is the image of smoking of James Dean in a biker jacket riding his motorcycle with Marilyn Monroe on his back, and then there is the reality of smoking that is three obese international students with pimples covering their face loudly bantering in front of the school library. One is the aesthetic of challenging death that we aspire to have, and the other is the reality of our life that follows.
There is a part of me that always wants to die. There is a part of everybody that wants to die. This is an integral part of human nature to have self-destructive tendencies. But, relative to smoking, is it worth dying at the cost of living?