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January 11 marks the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s landmark report that tied smoking to lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and other illnesses.
In 1964, 42 percent of Americans were smokers. The numbers have dropped — down to 18 percent in 2012.
In fact some insurance companies are dropping the non-smokers discount as the decrease in smokers has led to a drop in related fires and health problems.
But what about young people and smoking?
Leon Neyfakh is 28 and he writes about his own love affair with smoking during college for the Boston Globe magazine.
Even after many decades and the irrefutable scientific evidence, smoking still holds a rebellious appeal for some young people, despite the disapproval of their peers, as Neyfakh writes in the Globe magazine:
While it’s undeniably true that by the end of my four years I felt more and more as if my friends and I were being judged by our nonsmoking classmates for our nasty habit, the truth is I liked feeling as though others saw me as a fearless off-putting outsider. I remember lighting up a cigarette at graduation, wearing my black robe, and being rather pleased with myself as the people around me looked with eyes that asked, “Is nothing sacred?” But not long after I left school, the romance started to fade.
However, Neyfakh writes that health policy experts predict e-cigarettes will become the next trend. E-cigarettes do not have the carcinogenic compounds of cigarettes, but do contain nicotine, the addictive compound in tobacco.
Neyfakh joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss smoking trends.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. January 11 marks the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general's landmark report tying smoking to lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and other illnesses. Since then, the percentage of Americans smoking has dropped dramatically, from 42 in 1964 to just 18 percent in 2012.
In fact some insurance companies are dropping the nonsmokers' discount because so few people smoke. But what about young people? Have attitudes changed with them? Leon Neyfakh is 28 and writes in the Boston Globe magazine about his own love affair with smoking and how, like millions of Americans, he ultimately broke up with the cancer sticks. Leon, welcome.
LEON NEYFAKH: Hello.
YOUNG: So when did you first want to start smoking? Why did you - it was like a passion when you were young. You bought those phony cigarettes, you know. Why?
NEYFAKH: Yeah, well yeah, it started very early. I mean, for me, part of it was my dad smokes, so I thought he was cool. But I remember buying, yeah, like you said, these joke cigarettes at the joke shop, you know, where they also sold hand buzzers and whoopie cushions and stuff like that. You know, I would (unintelligible) around town, you know, as a third-grader exhaling into these little powder cigarettes, and it looked like a cloud of smoke.
YOUNG: Well, and you write when you graduated to real cigarettes, you loved it. It felt great even though you knew it wasn't good for you. In your mind, it gave you the aura of a complicated man with his hands firmly on the steering wheel of his destiny. Really?
NEYFAKH: Yeah, I mean, it marks you as someone who is making a decision for himself or herself. It's transgressive. It's rebellious. And I know that a lot of times we think of those associations being kind of the result of oh, you know, seeing it in movies and ads. For me it was like you're not supposed to do this thing, and I'm choosing to do it.
YOUNG: Well, you know, you spoke with Michael Siegel(ph), who is a professor at BU's School of Public Health. He studies tobacco policy. And he said to you that even though people like you think that it's all internal, that there's this coolness factor that you're feeling, it is from outside advertising, decades of it.
Now first of all, what years are you talking about when you were smoking and feeling cool?
NEYFAKH: Well, let's see. So I started smoking like the summer after my senior year of high school, so that would be 2003, and I continued for eight years.
YOUNG: Well, that's pretty late in the game because cigarette advertising on television and radio was banned in the '70s, and then advertising directed to kids was banned in 1998. Do you remember things that might have led you to believe that you were cool when you smoked?
NEYFAKH: Well that's just it. I don't remember the Marlboro Man or Joe Camel giving me the idea that smoking made you cool. I suppose one thing might be like musicians, like seeing rock musicians smoke, Kurt Cobain, who was like, you know, a teen idol for me. Mostly it was like seeing people around me. The skateboarders in my school were smokers and people who kind of, yeah, made this choice that sort of flouted this good advice that we were getting.
YOUNG: You liked feeling as though others saw you as a fearless, off-putting outside, which gives us insight into why young people might take up cigarettes. But the title of your article is how smoking in college stopped being cool. So how did it stop?
NEYFAKH: That's right. Towards the end of my time in school, I was starting to feel like kind of a pariah, like walking through my dorm to the courtyard to stand out there and freeze, you know, while kind of people looked askance at this. In some moods, maybe it makes you feel like a cool outsider, and other moods you feel like a loser.
I just think that, you know, more and more people are feeling like losers, and that's sort of what I got from speaking to kids.
YOUNG: You also spoke to a friend that you used to smoke with in college who had another theory, that while smoking once was counterculture, as you just said, now it has something to do with, what, not that bright.
NEYFAKH: Yeah, exactly, yeah. So my friend's theory is - I love my friend's theory, which is that, you know, in the past, being against people who were telling you not to smoke could legitimately feel to someone like being against the establishment. Now you're standing up to facts in the same way that climate change deniers are standing up to facts and people who don't believe in evolution are standing up to facts.
YOUNG: Well, but then you speak with Pamela Ling(ph), she's an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. She studies tobacco marketing. And, you know, she points out that where smoking is now is that it's getting concentrated in little enclaves. Now we know many of those enclaves have to do with poverty, and that's sort of a separate discussion from the one we're having about young people.
People are being targeted to smoke who can't even afford the packs of cigarettes anymore, they're so expensive. But staying with talking about young people and students, some of the other enclaves are actually sort of these little hip enclaves, like maybe a bar in the Mission District in San Francisco.
NEYFAKH: Yeah, I think it's hard to argue with the observation that there are these communities of people, you know, they're hipsters, where smoking rates are much higher I think than they are in the general population. Maybe that's because smoking makes people feel persecuted now in a way that causes them to band together more. So when you have a group of friends - you know, like one of the guys I talked to is a Harvard senior who is involved in the radio station at Harvard, and he works on the, you know, hard-core punk radio show.
And he said oh yeah, everyone associated with this radio show smokes. And these are kids who are into very marginal styles of music. They are deliberately casting themselves as being on the margin of society, and so smoking in a way sort of becomes another way of saying to heck with mainstream society, this is what I'm doing, and I don't care.
And actually when I asked him whether he thought ecigarettes were going to catch on, he said oh no. Basically the whole point of smoking at this point is to alienate you from others, and if you, you know, have a harmless ecigarette in your mouth, it doesn't have that effect.
YOUNG: Well, that brings us to ecigarettes, ecigs, vaping, which is smoking these ecigarettes that don't have carcinogenic tar, but they have nicotine. They're a delivery system for nicotine. Hugely popular among young people. What did you find?
NEYFAKH: So I went to a café, I guess you could call it, where they sell, you know, a variety of devices for vaping, as they call it. You know, they have one device that looks like a light saber, another devices that's handmade and is numbered. They sell, you know, a gazillion different ejuices that have, like, hilarious names like frozen lime drop and strawberry fuzz and another one called swagger, which is, you know, flavored with caramel and vanilla.
It reminded me frankly of like a sneaker, a specialty sneaker store, I know, where you walk in, and they say what are you looking for, like we have these like rare ejuices in today. You know, you're not going to find these anywhere else. And they're really kind of trying to cultivate this idea of to be a vaper you're actually a connoisseur. So they're definitely trying to make it seem cool, like a cool activity, a cool kind of hobby.
YOUNG: Well, and so are the advertisers.
NEYFAKH: Yeah, all the time now I see ads for ecigarettes that really - I think they're very similar to what people used to see on TV for normal cigarettes. You know, there's one with Courtney Love, where she's puffing on an ecigarettes, and this like stuffy old dame like walks over to her and, you know, wags her finger at her and scolds her for smoking inside, and Courtney Love says relax, it's just an ecig.
YOUNG: Well, you talked to somebody who vapes, smokes these ecigs, however you say it, and he said to you it's so funny because it's having a language almost recycled. He said well, when I took up smoking, it was to be cool, and ecigs are even cooler. And so it's back to what's cool.
And you'd spoken to Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, she's at the University of California San Francisco, a professor who studies smoking, and she attributes this truth ad campaign from about 15 years ago, which told kids you're not rebelling when you smoke cigarettes, you're actually falling into the hands of marketers, you're doing exactly what they want.
And she says that really turned on a light bulb in a lot of young smokers, like oh, well, I'm not cool, I'm just doing what marketers want me to do. Do you think it'll be the same campaign for ecigs?
NEYFAKH: I think there's a really good argument for regulating them because, you know, it's a drug delivery device.
NEYFAKH: And there is also a really good argument for, like, banning them from restaurants and cafes because, you know, you don't want everyone thinking that oh, it's just normal and good and fine to, you know, putting nicotine into your body.
YOUNG: Leon Neyfakh, he writes about his own love affair and breakup with cigarettes and takes a look at the landscape for young smokers today in the Boston Globe magazine. He is a writer for the Boston Globe ideas section. His article is "Blown Away: How Smoking In College Stopped Being Cool." Leon, thanks so much.
NEYFAKH: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: And our listener Tom in Davison, Michigan, just tweeted that Michael Moore, yes that Michael Moore, was on the school board there in 1977 and got students a smoking dock, a reminder that times have changed. If you have memories of smoking, let us know at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.