Mention “smoking” on campus and many peoples’ first thoughts roll to images of bongs, nights in high school spent hotboxing someone’s mom’s car, and bowls packed tightly with bits of green-gray marijuana. Specify that you’re talking about cigarette smoking and many people don’t have anything to say, much less any mental picture harkening back to days of nervously buying a first pack of cigarettes or covering up the smell of tobacco on their clothes.
More likely, students have a removed concept of a “typical smoker” who leans against the back wall of Olde Club, hiding behind opaque waves of smoke wafting in front of their face. This image is probably not of someone they know, but of a faceless caricature of a “typical smoker.” Most importantly, their removal from the smoker subtracts the aspect of intrigue that accompanies weed smoking or drinking alcohol. The average Swarthmore student is disinclined to smoke cigarettes. Smoking is not something they’re interested in and they can’t imagine themselves in that same corner of Olde Club, breathing in filtered Marlboro air, indulging in the unknown.
Smoking cigarettes, though an uncommon and relatively unpopular hobby at Swarthmore, does not have the same mystique as does smoking weed, or drinking, or the camaraderie that arises from participation in those activities. What instead transpires from interactions between smokers is a mix of generosity, friendship and a certain insularity that the more public, prevalent party scene lacks. “It’s a social thing to do, but you’re not going to smoke a cigarette and then hang out with someone for three hours the way you would if you were stoned,” said John.*
Smoking is not simply socially motivated, though, and the impetus behind making a habit of smoking is multi-faceted. The progression of one’s interests, age and mental state from the first cigarette to the thirtieth is telling of the many ways in which smoking both shapes the smoker and is shaped by the smoker.
A smoking habit, for several Swarthmore smokers, began with a few puffs of a cigarette around 15 or 16. Others began smoking at Swarthmore. Either way, their initial interest was not particularly strong, but built up over time. “It started out pretty slow. You try to keep yourself limited, but if things get busy for many days in a row you feel justified,” said John. Daniel,* another smoker, echoed John’s sentiments, saying, “It just catches up to you.” For others, smoking is more of a social addiction. “I don’t have a physical association with what it feels like to smoke…I could go a month without smoking if no one offered it to me or if it wasn’t in my possession,” said Sam.*
Once these students became full-blown smokers, it became clear that there were places on campus where smoking was acceptable. In these spaces, smokers have had the opportunity to meet one another and bond over their common interest. They have also experienced little pushback from fellow students in these spaces. “All of my friends smoke…[in] Olde club it’s… safe to smoke. I never feel uncomfortable smoking here,” noted Daniel.
Campus smokers’ sense of community is not derived from a need to defend themselves from discrimination. Instead, these students convene around other needs, feelings and desires. As Daniel alluded to, smoking indicates belonging to certain groups of people and is a highly social activity. Sam explained, “It signifies something in particular—it’s the same as dressing a certain way.” Smoking relays something about a person and exposes them in the same way that many of our outwardly expressed aesthetics and interests do.
Because smoking is so observable, by smokers and non-smokers alike, smokers on campus are easily identifiable. Daily, smokers unite around a common activity, share conversations and perhaps a cigarette, usually in public. Leah* expressed that many of her fellow smokers shared about the community of generosity and inter-group recognition that smoking engenders, “We all know the others that smoke. I’ll ask for a cigarette and they’ll give me one [and vice versa]. It’s nice.”
Daniel shared this feeling, explaining that smoking, “creates breaks in my day…it has taken some grasp over my schedule.” This shared schedule and these shared spaces, for many smokers, is the glue that holds together their bond. Just as people who have the same classes might walk and chat between their 9:55 and their 11:20, smokers talk, smoke and enjoy each other’s company in a similar way.
Smoking, however, takes on different meaning in less casual social settings, like parties. “It’s much easier to approach someone and be like ‘Do you want to go out for a smoke?’ or if you want to ‘talk to someone’ you can ask them to smoke,” said Daniel. Most often, these invitations are extended amongst known regular smokers.
Then there are social smokers, who are harder to identify. Social smokers and people who only smoke when they are at parties encounter generosity from the smoking community, but not of the same sort that regular smokers extend to each other on a daily basis. “If you’re going to ask me for a cigarette when you’re drunk, you might as well buy your own pack for when you’re drunk,” said Leah of her run-ins with drunk smokers.
Smoking is expensive, and beyond that there is an established pretense of giving and taking that social smoking does not lend itself to. Motives, too, differ between social and regular smokers. For regular smokers, sometimes the stress created by not being able to smoke and the stress of Swarthmore get confused. For a population of Swarthmore smokers, the stress of college drove them to smoke to cope with the anxiety, or to give them a break from the grind of busy Swarthmore life. Sam spoke to some of the reasons why smoking is therapeutic in the Swarthmore environment in particular, “I think that the days are really long at Swarthmore so there are just more opportunities to smoke for some reason…There’s something very relaxing and removed about it. Especially at Swarthmore it’s a really good excuse for idle time.”
John used smoking as a way to reduce stress and described smoking as a means for abating severe anxiety. “There are reasons that people smoke. It’s not as simple as ‘people are stupid and weak willed.’ There is a purpose.” He was quick to acknowledge the health risks of smoking and the messy negotiation between the stress of quitting and the stress of smoking in the first place. “When it’s already so hard to quit, thinking about the stress of quitting and then not having that relaxation or stress reducer — it’s doubly difficult to quit.”
Leah offered a similar perspective, but described the health threshold that she tries not to breach in her own relationship with smoking, “I’m well aware of the…willful ignorance you have to put yourself in as a smoker, but … as long as I’m faster than most of the people around me, it’s okay. In all other aspects of my life I try to be relatively healthy, eat well and workout.”
Quitting is no easy task, as Sam explained, “I’ve heard from other people who’ve heard that it’s really difficult to quit smoking at Swat because it’s really stressful and it’s not an environment that would help you quit.”
Some smokers on campus are intent on quitting, others have set up a timeline for quitting and some students have no desire to quit. Surely smoking — and quitting, a topic undoubtedly entwined with smoking itself — is a complex habit, whose intricacies run the gamut of mental, physical and social addiction. Still, for now, the smoking community continues to exist and perhaps metastasize as Leah described, “[The community] might be growing since last year. I remember last year there were fewer people smoking.”
Despite a small increase this year in the size of the smoking community at Swarthmore, the size remains small and the atmosphere private, further removing non-smokers from having a circumspect understanding of smoking and everything it involves. Maybe non-smokers haven’t even labeled Swarthmore smoking culture correctly in their misunderstanding of this modestly-sized, exclusive group of students. After all, Leah wasn’t the only person that ended her interview saying, “It’s even weird to call it a community—it’s more like a loose collection of human beings.”
*Names have been changed at the request of interviewees.