That Cloud of Smoke Is Not a Mirage

On a recent not-so-wintry Thursday in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, when the only snowflakes seen were over text, a gang of 20-somethings stood in a circle outside of Clearing Gallery, sharing a pack of American Spirits.

A few days earlier, at Columbia University, a 19-year-old pre-med student stared enviously at her phone screen — at Parisian women in cute dresses walking, cigarettes in hand — before stepping outside for a cigarette with her friends. (She requested not to be identified by name because she didn’t want her habit to affect her career in medicine.)

People are smoking online too. On Instagram, Tasmin Ersahin, a photographer and stylist, posted a story of her boyfriend, Arsun Sorrenti (son of the photographer Mario Sorrenti), catching a lit cigarette in his mouth. On TikTok, Charly Jordan, a D.J. and model, tried a sexy French inhale for her 7.7 million followers.

“Smoking is back,” said Isabel Rower, a 24-year-old sculptor, one of the spirited Americans outside of Clearing. “Weirdly, in the last year or two, all my friends who didn’t smoke, now smoke. I don’t know why. No one is really addicted to it. It’s more of a pleasure activity.”

Priya Poudyal, 24, from Ridgewood, Queens.Credit…Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

Across New York City, as the pandemic waxes and wanes, a social activity that had seemed diminished, or replaced (with vapes, cannabis and education), seems to have reappeared. Have cigarettes, those filthy, cancer-causing things — and still the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — lost their taboo?

Are we actually seeing more smokers?

Kat Frey, a 25-year-old copywriter who lives in Brooklyn, picked up the habit last year. “We’re having a very sexy and ethereal 1980s revival, and smoking is part of that,” she said. “A lot of people I know are posting pictures doing it. I’m doing it. It’s having its moment for sure.”

At the same time, cigarette smoking has been in a steady decline among adults in the United States for 30 years. David Hammond, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo, said the drop has been fueled largely by young people. led by a decrease in initiation by young people.

“The decline in initiation among youth and young people is predominantly responsible for the overall decline in smoking in the population,” Dr. Hammond said. (Overall nicotine use has gone up, because of vaping.) Yet, in 2020, for the first time in two decades, cigarette sales increased.

Nigar Nargis, the scientific director of tobacco control research at the American Cancer Society, said that there was evidence of “a higher level of smoking.” “It’s probably not just young people, but there are higher sales, which indicates higher consumption,” Dr. Nargis said. While no one knows if young people also began smoking more, the logic goes like this: A high tide raises all boats.

Smoking has made a surprising comeback with a nihilistic downtown crowd.Credit…Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

“Anecdotally, you hear a lot of stories about New Yorkers who are celebrating being out of their homes with excess,” said Michael Seilback, the national assistant vice president for state public policy at the American Lung Association. “The questions researchers are trying to figure out are: Are we actually seeing more smokers? Are we seeing more frequent smokers? Or is the time we weren’t going out erasing the memory of what it was to have smokers standing outside bars. All of those are possible.”

If the clouds of smoke many of us think we’re seeing are not, indeed, mirages, the next logical question is to ask where they’re coming from.

Something to do together

The obvious, Carville-ian, answer: It’s the pandemic, stupid.

Kiersyn Cocke, 30, began smoking as a teenager, but before 2020 she hadn’t smoked in three years. And then the coronavirus came calling. “For sure the pandemic — it was definitely stress,” she said. “And definitely something to do.”

Ms. Cocke lives in New York and is the brand director for a start-up. “We’ve all been remote and away from each other for like a year and a half,” she said, stepping outside of Minnows Bar, on the border between Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, for a cigarette. What was “something to do” became “something to do together.”

“We know that during the pandemic, people have felt very socially isolated,” said Adam Leventhal, the director of the USC Institute for Addiction Science in Los Angeles. “Feeling isolated could lead to sadness. And it’s well known that people do use nicotine, including cigarettes, to self-medicate sadness and stress. That would certainly be at play here.”

Moreover, once many of the pandemic’s restraints lifted and people were allowed to go out to play, there was a move to indulge.

“When I’m out at a bar, it’s so fun to step out with my friends,” Ms. Frey said. “You’re making eyes with other people doing the same thing. Everyone is out together.” The outdoor nightlife easily lent itself to more smoking, as did the outdoor dining hutches, constructed outside of many restaurants and bars in the city once the colder weather arrived.

Faiz Azfar, 18, a New York University student who rolls his own cigarettes, in Washington Square Park.Credit…Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

“When I could be outside more, I started back up,” said Laquan Small, a 32-year-old stylist in New York, who reduced his smoking during the pandemic’s first stages. “I was drinking in parks and out where other people were smoking. It was a habit to pick back up on.”

A third, darker pandemic effect was a kind of fatalism, an après moi le déluge attitude festered in months of loneliness, as well as constant news of death and disease.

“We all have this flamboyant death wish, if you will,” said Ryan Matera, a 25-year-old agent’s assistant in Los Angeles. “We just look to the north and see fires, and the ground shakes beneath us, and they tell us the waters are rising. So we ask, ‘What the hell is the difference?’”

Ms. Rower, the sculptor, felt something similar on the East Coast. “I think everyone was like, ‘What’s the point?’” she said.

‘It’s extremely dumb’

But these young people know the dangers of smoking, right? In 2019 the C.D.C. reported that cigarette smoking among American adults had hit an all-time low, of 13.7 percent, in 2018. Education does not seem to be the issue.

Nathan Miller, a 24-year-old waiter and designer in New York, laughed at his own indifference. “It’s really funny,” he said. He takes PrEP, a medication to prevent H.I.V. infection, and when he was looking into it, he noticed that it can decrease bone density of the spine by about 1 percent. “I left the doctor’s office unsure, and I immediately lit a cigarette, and laughed,” he said. “Because here I am, consuming this absolute poison. I definitely had double standards.”

A smoker in the East Village.Credit…Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

Rachel Yara, a 23-year-old student in Boston, smokes despite having been born with a small hole in her lung. “It’s extremely dumb,” she said. “If I have a cold, I have asthma attacks. And it’s absolutely made worse by this.”

That’s not all, though. “Part of it is that it almost feels like rejection of wellness culture, which is very stupid,” she said. It feels good, she said, to reject all that.

“I don’t have the time or money to go to Whole Foods and do yoga and eat bowls,” she said. “I will never eat a bowl. I’m just sitting here smoking my cigs and forget it.”

In a world of wellness, cigarettes offer a solid rebellion, especially with so few options. Cannabis, once the king of counterculture, is now a party to wellness. It’s not only legal in many states, but also that thing your nerdy uncle uses to help him sleep.

“Weed is positioned as medicine now,” Ms. Frey said. “Cigarettes are this bad, cheeky thing.”

‘Don’t have a USB charger in your mouth’

To speak about smoking without including vaping is to talk about TV without including streaming, especially given thatA recent Gallup poll reported that 17 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 vape; the C.D.C. has reported that only 8 percent of Americans age 18 to 24 smoke.

To enter into this discussion is to jump into a dispute in health care, between those who believe that vapes are a proven tool to help smokers quit and those who believe they are the tobacco industry’s evolution in getting new generations addicted to nicotine. (They can both be right, by the way.)

Alejandro Garcia, smoking in Echo Park in Los Angeles.Credit…Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times

For most young smokers, vapes exist in somewhat of a dance, whether they be Juuls, Myle disposable pods or single-use e-cigarettes like Puff Bars. Many tried e-cigarettes in their teens, before fragrant flavors were outlawed in many states, and many more leapt onto the Juul trend a few years ago. Of the smokers I spoke to (about 20), most use vapes in tandem with smoking cigarettes, though some will not go near vapes.

“If you’re going to be addicted to something, use cigarettes,” Ms. Frey said. “Don’t have a USB charger in your mouth. It looks so lame.” Many young smokers supplement with vapes, particularly Juuls, as a means to satisfy their nicotine cravings when a cigarette is not available.

At the same time, a number of people interviewed for this article expressed irritation with the insidiousness of e-cigarettes: Their relative camouflage, compared with traditional cigarettes, means users can, and often do, hit it all the time. The nicotine stream from an e-cigarette becomes like the internet itself: constant, unbreakable and yearning for their attention.

“I was like, ‘I am just consuming way too much nicotine,’” said Ms. Yara, who found herself inhaling more than one Juul pod a day, the equivalent nicotine of a pack of cigarettes. “I hated how if I couldn’t find a vape for a second, I could not do schoolwork.” Ms. Yara returned to cigarettes as a means of decreasing her vape use.

So did Emile Osborne, a 22-year-old graphic designer. “I switched back to cigarettes because I thought it would be healthier than Juuling,” he said. “Cigarettes seem like a known evil, whereas vaping you don’t know the side effects at all. I can go out for a cig a few times a day. It’s a break from what I’m doing. That’s my nicotine fix for the day.”

This method does not seem realistic to Ken Warner, the an emeritus dean of public health at the University of Michigan, who sees vapes as a powerful weapon in the public health’s war on smoking. “If they’re really addicted to nicotine, two to four cigarettes a day would be most unlikely to satisfy a true physical addiction,” he said.

Kim Ho, Joseph Jansen and Kyle Corra, all 23 and from New Jersey, outside of Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side.Credit…Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

‘It is a joy to be contemporarily atypical’

While some smokers attest to choosing cigs over vapes for health reasons, others say that the choice is a much more classic one, loath as they may be to admit it: It looks and feels cool.

“It’s just a cool thing,” Ms. Frey said. “It sounds lame to say that. I think of hot guys that I’m into, and they’re like, ‘I’m going to step out and have a cigarette.’ It’s kind of sophisticated. Grunge sophisticated.”

And of course, part of that is your online image. “People are posting outside of a cool place, smoking with their friend, outside of cool dive bars,” Ms. Frey said. For her, like many of her generation, this aspect sounds familiar: “Smoking is part of being seen, and I think people want to be seen right now.”

For Fernanda Amis, 25, a waitress and actress who took up smoking at N.Y.U., it’s also a family affair. Her father, the writer Martin Amis, a lifelong smoker often photographed with a cigarette, has said they are one of his favorite things.

“Beautiful people do it, really talented people do it,” said Ms. Amis, who lives on the Lower East Side. “It goes with things that I admire.” In fact, back in college, she wrote a little manifesto about smoking titled “Notes of a Neo-smoker,” which included missives like: “Smoking is the epitome of masochism,” and “It is a joy to be contemporarily atypical.”

‘I don’t like that it’s so embedded in my life’

If all of this sounds desperately retrograde, it may not be permanent. In 2020, Monitoring the Future, a pre-eminent study on youth smoking since 1975, recorded the first uptick in years. In mid-December, it released its newest findings: Cigarette use was down in every school grade.

At the same time, smoking, in whichever form it takes, seems irrepressible. Despite the science, or the times, it’s one of those things, like bluejeans, that has always been tinged with a sense of coool, and will always symbolize renegade urges in some form.

“It’s a little thing that you’re always looking forward to,” said Kitty Luo, 21, a student at the University of Chicago. But that is also what makes her want to kick the habit: “I realize my life moves forward with, ‘When is the next smoke going to be?’ I don’t like that it’s so embedded in my life.”

And for many of those currently under the spell, there is consistent hope it may soon wear off. Lula Hyers, 24, a photographer and born-and-bred New Yorker, said she would like to stop smoking cigarettes. “It’s really expensive,” she said. “They’re really evil corporations. I would like to live a healthier lifestyle than I do right now. But there’s a lot of things to worry about.”

And for now, cigarettes aren’t one of them.

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