Sunday, 11 October 2015

知觉 | You got a light?

Posted by: Dom Lowth

Every day on my walk to school I pass two guys sat under a railway bridge. They look about fifteen or so, and lean their bikes up in the same place at the same time everyday to have a smoke. I don’t know them, but seeing them rush through a shared cigarette at 8:15 every weekday morning always plays on my mind.

Each time I walk past them I wonder the same thing: What made them start? Why do people smoke?

Once upon a time smoking was cool. Before that it was the norm. I think it’s safe to say that it’s now an activity enjoyed by the minority, and frowned upon by the majority. All the talk about smoking seems to be regarding the struggle to quit. Vaping companies have grabbed this opportunity, charging double figures for people to blow out clouds of flavoured water vapour as an alternative. You pay to start smoking, you pay to keep the habit going, and now you pay to stop too. So why are thousands of young people still smoking their first cigarettes under railway bridges every day?

The health issues related with the habit are no secret anymore. Everyone knows it kills. The words ‘smoking kills’ litter almost every street in the country. In 2003, new EU regulations were introduced that forced cigarette companies to print their packets with a health warning covering at least 30% of the surface. They could choose from either ‘smoking kills’ or ‘smoking seriously harms you and others around you’. A further 40% of the packet’s back was to be taken up with a second warning; something like ‘smoking when pregnant harms your baby’, ‘protect children: don’t make them breathe your smoke’, or ‘smoking can cause a slow and painful death’. There’s a definite theme: smoking ain’t good for you. But as I said, everyone knows.

A 2009 review into the warning messages on cigarette packaging concluded: ‘There is clear evidence that tobacco package health warnings increase consumers’ knowledge about the health consequences of tobacco use.’

Yeah, duh. But why is this ‘consumer knowledge’ not stopping teenagers from puffing away before school?

Surely they know that it’s no longer a social activity, as it once was. Do they not see the huddles of shivering adults hunched over outside pubs, clubs and restaurants on Friday nights, desperately trying to suck life out of the cigarettes in their hands? They haven’t popped out for a chat, and clearly they’re not stood in the driving rain for fun.

Research by the NHS claimed ‘an average 20-a-day smoker can expect to shell out £2,500 a year’. And that’s not just for the packets of cigarettes. According to the study, the ‘personal hygiene costs for lotions, potions and medications that treat and disguise the effects of smoking accounted for about £200 of the annual bill.’ Clearly, smoking damages your wallet as much as it damages your lungs. What is it, then, that makes young people so willing to look past all these huge disadvantages for the sake of a habit that in reality they could quit… or even better, not start in the first place.

One of the reasons people start has to be the stress of school work and exams. ‘Researchers suggest that nicotine may alter the activity of brain areas that are involved in the inhibition of negative emotions such as anger’ (BioMed Central). A cigarette relaxes and cools the nerves of students trapped into the unrelenting cycle of schoolwork, homework, revision, exams, and preparation for university and careers. It’s hardly surprising that some teenagers feel the need for a comfort blanket in the years of GCSEs and A Levels. Smoking kills you? Well not if school does first. Smoking can relieve the ‘negative emotions’ associated with other complications of teenage life and growing up too; relationships, family life, changing identities, and so on. It doesn’t take long for it to start making some sense, does it?

Secondly, a lot of teenagers draw on their first cigarette to make themselves stand out from the crowd. If you smoke, not everyone’s going to be impressed, but it proves you’re daring and confident; a rule-breaker and a risk-taker. Everything teenagers are meant to be. Everything society expects us to be, but accuses us for. Teens are at the stage in their lives where they want to start doing their own thing, and being their own person. They can’t do this at school, because there everyone is defined by the same exams and curriculum. They can’t do it at home, where they’re brought up a certain way. Something like smoking provides them with a new, edgy, ‘I don’t care’ identity, which you can’t really get sat at home revising, working hard at school, or spending time with your family.

Thirdly, the obvious one: Peer pressure. This is much more relevant to some people than it is to others. It depends on who you choose to spend your time with. I’ve been offered a cigarette probably no more than five times in my life, and each time I’ve been able to say an easy ‘No thanks, I don’t smoke’ without feeling any embarrassment whatsoever. But that’s only because with the groups I choose to be a part of, smoking remains an activity enjoyed by a very small minority. Either that, or the smoker will be a familiar face from school who I’d like to assume would respect my lack of interest. In my eyes these are the saddest cases: watching someone I've shared jokes with at school leaning on a wall outside the party alone, because they’re what? ‘I’m just a social smoker’. Peer pressure is a big problem for lots of young people though, and that’s a fact. In youth communities where smoking is the norm, you’re the outsider if you haven’t tried it. And anyway, if everyone else is doing it, you’re clearly missing out. Go on.

You’ve probably guessed that I’m against smoking. I really hope you have. I’m not going to try and dictate the decisions you make while I'm sat here at my laptop in the comfort of my bedroom, but I hope this has at least made you think.

If you're trying to make yourself stand out from the crowd, do it with something that makes you stronger, not weaker. Smoking does actually kill, believe it or not.

Dom's listening to: 'Elysium' by Bear's Den

Read my previous post here.

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