Originally written for Catalyst Magazine.
Health warnings on cigarette packages don’t have much of an effect. At least, not if you’re anything like Frankie Reid, university student and part-time smoker since she was 14.
Spending her formative years as a young teen hanging with 12 and 13-year-old chain smokers, Reid didn’t have much of a choice on whether or not she’d take up the habit as well. With a knowledge of the stores that wouldn’t think twice about selling to underage kids, and with “darts” being easily accessible at parties and at school, Reid thought “(they’re) doing it, so I might as well do it too.”
The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that 28.2% of younger adults (18-44 year olds) were smoking in 2001. This dropped to 16.3% in 2014-15. The smoking culture among youths has changed drastically, however it seems there is still a compulsion for teenagers to try smoking. Even with the bombardment of anti-smoking campaigns and grotesque images plastered over cigarette packaging, there’s still no inkling of a major change in attitudes.
Reid admits the potential health damage “wasn’t even a consideration” when she first contemplated smoking. “I just was doing it for the laughs. You think you’re fairly invincible when you’re 15 and 16… or 14.”
Alcohol and drug counsellor Alex Tsiliris believes it’s a “youthful exuberance” which allows younger generations to ignore the health risks. “They think, ‘you know I’m young, I’m healthy, therefore I’ll sit in denial’.”
Friends of Reid’s who have been smoking for over seven years now cough up blood and can no longer “feel their fingertips.” However, they continue to “punch the darts.”
If the obvious health side effects aren’t enough to change their ways, then what is? “Raised prices – I think that’s actually the most effective, to hit the pocket nerve,” says Reid.
Though many teenagers and young adults wouldn’t classify themselves as ‘smokers’, they’re more than happy to be a ‘social smoker’. In the everyday daylight hours, it may appear as though smoking isn’t ‘in’ anymore. However, a night out with friends demonstrates the casual attitudes towards cigarettes.
For many young smokers, their first attempt at smoking is among friends. This creates an association between smoking and social settings. Counsellor and addiction specialist Domenic Vigilanti says the social aspect of cigarettes is a major deterrent to breaking the habit. “It looks fun, it looks sociable, and you’re looking for a stimulant. That’s why it’s so hard for young people, it’s that social kind of connectedness,” he says.
In friendship groups like Reid’s, smoking is sometimes the sole reason to spend time with each other. “My friend once specifically drove 25 minutes to pick me up so we could punch darts,” she reminisces.
In order to continue shifting young people’s attitudes towards smoking, Vigilanti believes we need to ask questions about why young people are picking up the habit.
“Is it peer pressure, is it because it’s a stimulant, or (is it) your parents’ influence?”, she says.
For Tsiliris and Vigilanti’s generation of smokers, the iconic Marlboro Man ad campaign triggered many to try and emulate that ‘macho’ image. For Reid, however, it was her family’s influence which first began to normalise smoking. “My extended family have chain smoked since they were about 14, and they still do into their 40s and 50s. I’ve always had it around, that kind of influence,” says Reid. “It was always super social when I was growing up.”
Tsiliris believes many young adults haven’t shifted their mindset as “there are rites of passage associated with certain substances, including cigarettes… maybe an element of rebelliousness.”
“There’s always that element (of) ‘I’m going to do something that’s different from the majority’,” he expresses. This possibly rings true for Reid, who was deterred by her mum who had never smoked and her dad who warned her off of them after chain smoking for around 15 years.
“I was like, nah, up yours. I’m gonna punch darts.”