Driving down Interstate 110, my gut reaction is to roll up the windows, my mind circling back to the hundreds of Environmental Policy readings and news stories on the toxic Los Angeles air quality. Hypocritical, my friends would say; cancer also comes from our plastic bottles, our microwave dinners and our phones pressed between our face and our pillow every night as we sleep. We normalize passing around our non-FDA approved Juuls at parties and nonprescribed ADHD medication throughout finals week. Why bother shutting out the smog?
It’s easy to be a pessimist growing up in a constant stream of bad news. It was no surprise that at 18, I decided that buying a pack of Marlboro lights was the last bit of control I had over my imminent demise. Smoking a cigarette felt like accidentally throwing plastic into the trash instead of the recycling; cruel, but trivial in the grand scheme. I thought that if it didn’t kill me, it’d make me stronger and if it did, I was going to die from global warming anyway.
Little white and orange cylinders lined the streets and the highway and filled concrete ashtrays outside every business in my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The city was home to Big Tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds and the industry greatly influenced the city, from the name of our high school to the abandoned factory plants that lined the historic downtown district. I’d heard about the peak of the tobacco industry in the 80s — the black fog that covered the sky in the mornings and filled each factory worker’s lungs as they picked up their free pack of Newports alongside their paycheck.
In my high school health class, cigarettes stirred up strong emotions. Several students admitted that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were avid smokers; that they spent thousands of dollars on cigarettes or nicotine gum instead of on groceries or their children’s college savings.
I had seen the tar-filled lungs, broken yellow teeth and other gruesome images that covered cigarette boxes abroad. My friends and I collected them. “Smoking kills,” they read in Spanish, Japanese and Italian. Killed who? Not me. We told ourselves we were different, believing that tobacco somehow differentiated the effects it had between educated 19-year-olds and 55-year-olds, between those who lived in the high rise apartments of Los Angeles and New York instead of the farms of West Virginia.
I never checked the box at the doctor or self-identified as a smoker to my family. For me, smoking was part of the social experience, a reason to ditch the party and head to the patio with the cool kids. It gave me a chance to “catch my breath” with friends after a long day of classes. It was an association to the chic women in the movies, who smoked Gitanes at cafes to overcome writer’s block, filled Indian hookah lounges after dinner in New Delhi or concert venues in Berlin.
The marketing campaigns of Big Tobacco left no one behind. They successfully traversed the political spectrum, age groups, gender and sexual orientation. Even the packaging, so obviously tailored by Big Tobacco giants to my age group, clouded every decision I made. The effect made cigarettes as essential as vintage jeans and underground music to my cool girl persona.
Even after harsh criticism from friends and strangers, I’d argue my healthy lifestyle allowed for a bit of sin. I smoked on the beach after a morning swim or after making a green smoothie. I’d roll my own tobacco into little hemp infused papers, swearing to myself that it was a healthy alternative when it was really something more interesting to do with my hands.
The only thing I was rolling was myself, into shiny wrapping paper under Big Tobacco’s Chrismas tree. I spent hundreds of dollars on cigarettes and in return was left with sleepless nights, chills and mood swings of withdrawal.
Since I quit, my friends started telling me their own experiences with cigarettes. I’ve heard about their struggles with patches and prescriptions and the trendy vapes with enticing flavors that have led them to yet another addiction. I nod along with understanding. It’s easy to pick up a cigarette and not think about the health detriments, let alone the systemic oppression behind them. It’s not much different than the fight against the meat industry or pharmaceutical companies. For a generation expected to rally against the oppression of everything and everyone, we really do have to pick and choose our battles.
Still, it’s difficult to watch scenes of Audrey Hepburn, smoking a cigarette on her fire escape in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — or more relevant, Bella Hadid, with her Instagram stories capturing smoke and ashtrays at a restaurant in Paris — without feeling that same twinge of embarrassment and oppression I feel when watching old American movies with racist or sexist undertones. For a second, I’ll miss the sensation but I am quick to realize that’s exactly what Big Tobacco wants me to feel.
Poppy Thekdi is a junior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. She can be reached at email@example.com.