The other night, I was watching the tremendously popular television series “Mad Men,” a show depicting the hard drinking, compulsively smoking, womanizing, amoral slime buckets of a fictitious ’60s era advertising firm. While I will abstain from any sort of frank review of the show, I will say it serves its purpose as a nostalgic, somewhat voyeuristic, glance backward at a less socially evolved time in our recent collective history. In short, it is nasty fun to watch. There are far too many moments of depravity and offensiveness in the show to relay to you in a short amount of time, but I will say that, after watching two back-to-back episodes, I was surprised to find myself, not morally outraged and disdainful, but desperately wanting a cigarette–and I don’t even smoke!
It is no surprise that media (television, movies, advertising, etc) holds the profound power to influence behaviors, for better or worse. As many parents and consumer groups will attest, the depiction of actors, actresses, models and otherwise casually smoking has acted as a treacherous siren to lure young people toward the destructive habit of smoking. People are now wise to this, and the incidence of cigarette smoking in various forms of media has been on the decline for years, and subsequently teen smoking has waned as well.
However, a recent report on National Public Radio about teen smoking touched upon a point I had never really thought much about: The idea that many teenagers don’t start smoking to simply look cool or emulate celebrities, but to allay fear and overwhelming stress. The report follows a teenage girl who began smoking at the age of 13 due to the stress of a failed romance, and loosely documents her attempts to quit, once and for all, before she becomes a lifer. In the report, pediatrician Jonathan Klein claims that media images of smokers still hold sway over young impressionable minds, but do so by depicting smoking as a gesture towards relaxation and unwinding. In addition, children of smokers are twice as likely to pick up smoking than children from families without smokers. With that said, children presumably look at their chimney-puffing parents not as the epitome of cool, but as examples of how to self-medicate, or at least unwind. This begs the question: Is the current generation so overtaxed and anxious that being (or at least appearing) cool takes a back seat to relaxation? Have matters changed that much since I was a delinquent teenager in the ’80s?
It goes without saying that smoking is a harmful and repellent habit that tempts 4,400 children each year into becoming regular smokers. What is distressing (whether this is a new development or something routinely overlooked) is that impressionable children are apparently looking to smoking to provide a much-needed reprieve to an increasingly stressful childhood. Maybe our first line of defense should be to deglamorize the act by showing all the hopelessly addicted smokers, ostracized and huddled in doorways as they tensely draw on their cherished cigarettes.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.