Smoke & Mirrors
Why Are Cigarettes Suddenly Being Romanticized Again?
From the chain-smoking depicted in The Idol to the “Lana Del Rey” lipsticks going viral on TikTok, cigarettes are creeping back into pop culture.
During Sex and the City’s six-season run from 1998 to 2004, Carrie Bradshaw’s addiction to nicotine was a major plot point. In the early seasons especially, she was seldom seen street-side without a cigarette in hand, prompting her then-beau, Aidan, to make an ultimatum around the topic. In the decades since, the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke were drilled into the collective consciousness, so much so that youth smoking rates plummeted, from 23% in 2000 to 2.3% in 2021. But when the HBO show’s spin-off series And Just Like That… premiered, Carrie was still smoking.
And she’s not alone. Other 2023 shows have similarly revived the trend on-screen, like in HBO’s The Idol, whose protagonist, Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), chain-smokes through most of the pilot episode. And when the Emmy nominations were announced earlier this month, the nonprofit public health organization Truth Initiative, which is committed to nicotine education and addiction prevention, noted that seven nominated shows were laden with nicotine usage: Stranger Things, American Horror Stories, and The Umbrella Academy, as well as four animated shows, Rick and Morty, Big Mouth, The Simpsons, and Family Guy.
Off-screen, cigarette motifs have bled into the world of beauty, too. Not only are heady, tobacco-like notes such as guaiac wood becoming the definitive aroma of it girls, but Lana Del Rey-inspired packs of lipstick meant to mimic cigarettes have gone completely viral on TikTok. The angsty message on the latter’s packaging? “Smoking kills but we were born to die either way,” a reference to her 2012 album, Born to Die.
Sure, cigarettes never truly left the small screen — instead becoming a dirty little secret revealed in street-side alleyways or seedy clubs — but the imagery is popping up now at a wild rate. Why the resurgence?
Trends are cyclical, and cigarettes can act as a not-so chic accessory.
Trends are cyclical by nature, ebbing and flowing into popularity every 20 or so years. Just take a look at the return of low-rise jeans, wide headbands, and contoured, brown-lined lips. Affection toward cigarettes, it seems, is no different. Kylie Jenner was recently spotted with a pack of cigarettes after leaving Timothée Chalamet’s home (stirring the Internet), which was then followed by A-listers like Hailey Bieber and influencers like Cindy Kimberly dropping smoke-filled carousels on Instagram.
“I wonder if, as a society, we’ve become less vigilant [when it comes to condemning cigarette use],” says Dr. Amy Wechsler, an NYC-based, double board-certified psychiatrist and dermatologist. “We shouldn’t let up on the bad effects of cigarettes.”
Jenna Ortega perhaps learned this lesson the hard way, after recent photos of the then-20-year-old actor smoking cigarettes caused online outrage.
We’re in a mental health crisis.
In The Idol, Jocelyn’s smoking habit is supposed to reflect her poor mental health, a correlation pulled from real life. “[People] smoke more when they’re stressed, anxious, depressed, and even [dealing with] psychosis,” says Wechsler. Though she notes that these emotions may not necessarily mean one would pick up a habit like smoking, she clarifies that those feelings often amplify a reliance on nicotine. In recent years, she’s noticed that smoking has been noticeably more prevalent on New York City streets.
The country is in the midst of a mental health crisis, and of course, the pandemic that shall not be named also negatively impacted the mental health of many, young and otherwise.
The nicotine industry is still targeting teens.
Since smoking rates among young people ages 15 to 24 are down, the tobacco industry is working ceaselessly to recruit “replacement smokers,” says Truth Initiative CEO Robin Koval.
Enter vaping, which Koval deems the Truth Initiative’s current priority and which pops up in shows like Euphoria. Nearly 15% of current high school students partake, which isn’t far behind the cigarette use in the early 2000s. And unlike dosed cigarette sticks, nicotine-filled vapes are often held in-hand throughout the day, so users can puff more often than their cigarette-smoking counterparts. What’s more, they tend to contain higher levels of nicotine, which is veiled by fruity flavors.
According to Truth Initiative, the negative effects of cigarette-wielding characters on television have consequential power, particularly over young watchers. “Peer-reviewed research shows that young people with high exposure to tobacco images in television shows were three times as likely to start vaping compared to peers with no exposure,” says Koval. And while cigarette smoking may be at low (2.3% for young people), the most recent data is from 2021.
The long-term effect of shows like And Just Like That… and The Idol isn’t measurable yet, but vaping among high schoolers shows no signs of slowing.
“Nicotine is the most addictive substance known, more than heroin,” adds Wechsler. “[Cigarettes] are deadly, horrible for your organs and your skin. There’s not one good thing about it.”
If you or someone you know is trying to nix their addiction to nicotine, This Is Quitting is a free and anonymous text message program via Truth Initiative that is currently helping more than 600,000 young people quit. Text DITCHVAPE to 88709 for immediate help.
“Youth Vaping, Smoking, & Nicotine Use.” Truth Initiative, truthinitiative.org/our-top-issues/vaping-issue.
Dr. Amy Wechsler, an NYC-based, double board-certified psychiatrist and dermatologist
Robin Koval, Truth Initiative chief executive officer