Understanding the appeal: Urban student cigarette usage rises 83.8%

Orla Meehan, Editor in Chief, Creative

Illustration credit: Rapha Lee.

Reports from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) show that cigarettes cause more than 480,000 deaths per year in the US. According to the 2020 Health Initiative for Peer Education (HIPE) survey, 31.8% of Urban students have tried combustible cigarettes, an 83.8% increase from the 2017 HIPE data. Of the people who said they smoke, 40.1% say they smoke sporadically with friends and 5.6% say they smoke at least a few times per week. From this data, it is clear that students are increasingly smoking cigarettes, which has become a significant component of Urban’s social life. How did this happen?
According to Jennifer Epstein, health education teacher and faculty advisor for HIPE, the advertisement industry has played a large role in romanticizing cigarettes. “Tobacco companies are brilliant,” she said. “They have all the money, and they can hire great people to get their product out there. I think they’ve done an amazing job advertising their product in movies [by] having sexy people in sexy scenes use their cigarettes.”
This advertisement tactic has caused cigarettes to become somewhat viewed as aesthetic, increasing their popularity. “It’s all about influencers, whether it’s TikTokers or YouTubers or people in movies and TV,” said Epstein. “They don’t realize how influential they are.”
Orlando Dippet, a student whose name has been changed due to the fact that they are underage, says that before they quit, they used to smoke at the most two packs a week. “The other day I was in Shakespeare, and two of the actors were smoking on stage and they looked cool and I really wanted a cigarette, even though I don’t even get cravings anymore,” Dippet said, speaking to the way in which cigarettes have been romanticized.
“[Smoking cigarettes] feels normalized when people my age are smoking,” said Candice Smith, whose name has also been changed. “I saw upperclassmen doing it when I was an underclassman,” Smith said. “I think also Urban has an intense individuality complex. We always want to be different and I think that means smoking cigs, like ‘oh I’m so cool I’m so edgy.’”
According to John Phone, a student who has also been given a fake name, smoking cigarettes plays a large role in the social scene at Urban and helps many students with social anxiety. “When you’re at a party, or in some social situation and it feels kind of awkward, it’s very easy to grab a cigarette and go outside with the one or two people that you want to hang out with,” said Phone. “It kind of feels like this special moment that you’re sharing with them even though you’re just inhaling tar into your lungs together,” Phone said, adding that although cigarettes may be calming, “there are more healthy ways…to calm yourself down if you’re feeling anxious.”
Another major factor for the prevalence of cigarettes today is the rise of vapes. “I feel like, as a nation, we were on a good trajectory, but E-cigarettes changed the whole game,” said Epstein.
Smith agrees with Epstein. “Vaping is like a pipeline,” Smith said, adding that “if I hadn’t vaped, I don’t know if I would have been into cigs in the same way.”
In addition to vaping hooking a whole new generation onto nicotine, many vapers are now switching to smoking. “Vaping isn’t cool anymore,” said Phone. “Maybe there’s a superiority complex because vapers think that cigarette smokers smell bad, while they smell like bubblegum, and cigarette smokers think vapers are lame,” they said.
Regardless of if you are vaping or smoking, nicotine has detrimental effects on the body. “It’s one of the most addictive drugs, and once that neural pathway [is paved], then it’s always there,” said Epstein. Other negative effects of cigarettes include cancer, emphysema, damage to the whole respiratory system, aging, and much more.
When asked about their advice to the Urban student body, all four people interviewed gave a unanimous cry: quit. “Quit as quickly as you can because there’s no reason for it,” said Epstein. “The longer a person has a habit, the harder it is to break.”
Epstein urges the Urban community to quit, not just for the sake of ourselves, but also for the larger world around us. “Since we’re such a political school, I would think about who you’re giving your money to,” she said. “These companies don’t care about anybody at all. They just care about making money. We are being totally manipulated by them.”