Stressed Out, Adolescent, and Smoking

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 Appťtit among other publications.


William C
William Cabout a year ago


W. C
W. Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

Sandy Erickson
Sandy Erickson6 years ago

Yes,kids are under THAT much stress. They are bullied all the freekin' time and the scholls 'claim' not to be able to anything about it.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W6 years ago

Along with stress, smoking harms their health even more.

Jon Hoy
Jonjon Hoy7 years ago

Kids smoke cause their stressed? Poor excuse! They do it cause their friends do and they want to fit in with their friends and not be called names for not smoking.

Cheryl B.
Cheryl B7 years ago


Janice P.
Janice P8 years ago

Tyhe fear and stress factors could explain the reason I see so many younger kids smoking. But, where are they learning that cigarettes are a panacea for that? Most people I know nolonger smoke. Most movies and ads don't show it any longer. Who is modeling this behavior?

Vural K.
Past Member 8 years ago



Christopher P.
Christopher P9 years ago

Wait, the conclusion of the piece is that image (of the huddled ostracized smoker-exiles) is what will cure the kids who start smoking because they're smoking due to stress not image.... am I missing something there?

The innoculation and peer pressure avoidance approaches to smoking, alcohol and drug use prevention are proven ineffective methods. That's why we got rid of DARE (even while stuck with DARE-lite like ProjectAlert that has gross factual errors let alone its flawed premise).

Effective modeling isn't to hide smoking from kids, it's to present alternative stress management. Either that or just let them smoke pot once in a while in the safely supervised sanctum of the home--the family that tokes together....LOL. I smoked when I was in college because I had serious social anxiety issues. I stopped because of my health but never went back because I found methods of stress/anxiety management that worked. My kids also participate in native ceremonies where tobacco (usually American Spirit, H/T to Debs!) is used but chakan-shasha is smoked (red willow bark) after the ceremony. They are being taught what they learn in school isn't always factually accurate nor is it culturally relevant outside white suburban middle-upper class culture. As for Media models... the human mind is MORE complex than a computer. Our kids watch per their interest and always with us. It's hard to watch anything with a writer and a teacher without a literary crit occurring simultaneously

Patti C.
MK L9 years ago

Back in the 80s I started smoking, not out at parties with my friends, but in my room while I did my homework. I was 14. Both my parents and my 4 older brothers and sisters smoked and even though I did not consider them cool or glamorous, they did always have a pack of cigarettes on them. After reading your comments, I wonder if we were all just stressed out and needing a remedy. Now we have yoga and meditation, and other healthy ways to deal with stress. So that's the example I will be setting for my kids.