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January 28, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Smoke and Mirrors

Published by Farrago 2010

It’s the kind of generic peer-pressure scene you expect to see in movies. You’re standing around, having a drink, and people start lighting cigarettes. You instinctively pull a face as you smell the smoke, see the haze waft past and think of the all the Quit ads with their confronting images of rotting lungs and ulcerated throats. But in this party atmosphere, with the right amount of alcohol in your system and your friends around, there’s something makes you lean over, pluck the cigarette out of your mates’ fingers and take a drag. It might sting your lungs, and you splutter in a very ungainly and completely un-sexy way the first few times, but you keep going. The only reason I know what the hell a cigarette even feels like is because I’ve fallen into this cunning little trap.

I could blame the episode on alcohol, only I’m not an outrageous drunk. I don’t get flirty, or loud, and I never take even mildly dangerous risks. I’m that boring. Alcohol only serves to loosen my inhibitions, but I don’t drink enough to make me forget who I am. When I took the cigarette, alcohol was only a facilitator of an urge that was already there; the last of many vodkas let me indulge in my whim, even when everything else in my brain told me it was the wrong thing to do. Compare this to other young people, who smoke on a regular basis while fully aware of all the health risks, and you have to ask; why on earth do we do this to ourselves?

In an interview with ABC News, Matthew Rockloff from Queensland Central University identified the ‘danger’ aspect of cigarettes as a psychological cause behind the reason why people take up smoking, saying ‘one of the reasons why it’s cool is because it kills you’. When you smoke, you have essentially taunted death and lived to tell the tale. The nicotine in your system even makes you feel good about doing it, and encourages you to do it again. You’re denying the world the right to remove you from it, and that makes you a badass. What could make you feel better than playing God?

We, the 18-25 year-old, educated, Westernised age group continue to smoke even when we have faced anti-smoking campaigns our entire lives. We know perfectly well that smoking is addictive, deadly, makes us smell, costs us money and has left most smoking-addicted adults wishing they’d never started. How unfortunate, then, that cigarette companies are fully aware that it’s not the customers you have, but the customers you will have, that define your profits. And the future is us.

In 1989 Philip Morris International identified 18 to 25 year olds as their ‘key target group’. In the US, tobacco companies spent a record $8.4 billion on advertising and promotions in 1999. This is an increase of 22.3% from 1998, the same year a multistate tobacco settlement outlined the tobacco companies’ commitment not to ‘take any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth’. Clearly their approach was to blame young people for exposing themselves to an overwhelming exposure to cigarette ads, even when cigarette companies weren’t specifically ‘targeting’ young people. The 18-25s are a cigarette company’s prime target for obvious reasons: feelings of invincibility, an attraction to danger, an increased likelihood of trying new things. But what about the Freudian ‘death wish’?

It can, for example, shed some light on why young people ignore all logic and suck in the toxic fumes of cigarettes. When Sigmund Freud argued that ‘the aim of all life is death’, he perceived life as a struggle to reconcile oneself with the eventual state of death. What better way to do this than to invite death with a cigarette? Of course, you could go bungee-jumping, sky-diving, you could take a hundred other risks to accommodate this urge to taunt death and come out scot-free and healthy. But there is something so definitively dangerous about a cigarette that it has retained its slick, deadly attraction long past the decade in which medicine finally accepted smoking as a toxic activity. So what am I saying when I accept a cigarette? When I breathe in the toxic smoke, fully aware that I am doing something inherently morbid? It could be that I am accepting my death as inevitable, and learning to live with it, just as Freud claimed I would.

Unfortunately our reasons for smoking can’t always be veiled in psychological mystery; toying with death seems like such an elementary, run-of-the-mill thing for humans to do, that not even Freud can save us from the fact that we all have very similar weaknesses. My reasons for accepting a cigarette could be far less intellectually-probing reasons; I could be too drunk, lack self-control, or want to fit in with the crowd. And these are failings that a vast majority of people of prone to. So just how is smoking a cigarette an independent, Freudian way of testing our mortal boundaries?  

In the light of commonality, the sexiness of smoking seems to get ugly fast. If everyone does it, then it’s a bland, predictable, maddeningly inverted mirage of what we thought it was. As a tokenistic ritual, a cigarette seems to lose its potency as a weapon of death. It’s no longer something that we can use to prove we are not dead; it’s just something that will generally prove fatal or seriously dangerous to our health if we keep using it. Here’s hoping that the next time I drink and there’s a cigarette around, I remember my own argument, and not feel the urge to try, just one more time, to cheat death on a stick.


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