“Because I want to die,” responds Paddy Duncombe GRD ’13, like a true British wit, to the question of why he smokes. Hurrying out the Phelps Hall elevator into the open air, Duncombe, a graduate student in classics, immediately takes a pack of Marlboro Lights from his pocket and, while offering one to all present, smokes two.
At least Duncombe gave a response. Eyes widening, voice lowering a little, tar-stained fingers starting to shake — these are the usual reactions to the question, “Hey, I’ve seen you smoking before — interested in talking about it in the Yale Daily News?”
Might as well ask students to speak publicly of their involvement in anti-American espionage or dog-fighting.
As everyone knows, the “Health 101” Bible succinctly issues three commandments: safe sex, no smoking and all-organic food at least once a week. At a time when a long, healthy life is the new Promised Land, no one wants to be labeled as a Hell-bound nicotine-addict. But there are still a few rebels who literally blow smoke in the face of what can only be described as the “Live to be 100 at all costs” religion.
Smokers, though, are running out of places to hide. Bars, restaurants and Disney movies are all irrevocably smoke-free. Now exiled to the doorsteps littering Lynwood or the approaching iciness of a mid-winter’s Old Campus, our smoker frienemies approach life with an optimism and pleasantry that come only with … well … a short life:
“Recent research has linked smoking to harmful effects on nearly every part of the body,“ said Jody Sindelar, professor of Public Health. “Evidence suggests that the harm in smoking is like a dose effect — the more you smoke, the worse it is for your health.”
What one does, one becomes
Soon the entire area within Phelps Gate fills with the smell of tobacco and lungs burning as more and more classics grad students evacuate their indoor department meeting for some mildly buzzed socializing.
Duncombe, still refusing to take the subject seriously, proceeds to claim he once smoked four packs of cigarettes a day while pub-hopping and drinking.
Not surprising, said Sherry McKee, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, who has found that social smoking and the consumption of alcohol go hand in hand.
“Ninety-eight percent of current smokers also consume alcohol, and about 74 percent of all smoking episodes occur while drinking,” she said, which might explain the larger numbers of Yale smokers on weekend nights.
Raj Persaud ’10, for example, only smokes when he’s out with his friends and thinks of smoking as a great “social marker” for someone who’s relaxed and ready to enjoy the occasion.
But not everyone would say the social nature of smoking is the best thing about it. Cooper Lewis ’11, who started smoking in high school and has increased his nicotine intake since coming to Yale, said that, while he enjoys being around other smokers and meeting new ones, he really just smokes for himself.
“I think, were I to quit, I would really miss those moments I have by myself, when I’m just reading a book and smoking,” Lewis said.
Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters
Martin Devecka GRD ’12 inhales through his teeth, taking long drags on a cigarette. He joins the group of students moving away from the Phelps elevator vestibule and toward the seating provided by a parked lawn buggy, volunteering his own take on smoking’s appeal.
“The more you marginalize and criminalize something, the more you increase its appeal,” Devecka said.
Movies and television provide — or at least used to provide — cases in point. Sarah Jessica Parker in “Sex and the City.” Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction.” Brad Pitt in “Fight Club.” A charming, sexy actor plays a morally flawed character who, in sensuous moments of distress or boredom, smokes like a Versace-designed chimney.
But the Motion Picture Association of America announced in May that it would consider depictions of tobacco smoking when assigning movie ratings, thereby confining smoking to R-rated films that already include graphic language, violence and sexuality. Then, later in the summer, officials at the Walt Disney Company decided not to depict smoking in movies that carry the Disney brand.
Such policies may satisfy wary parents who don’t want their kids smoking just because Winona Ryder looks cool doing it, but Joshua Shelov ’93, who is teaching a college seminar on screenwriting, says that movies will lose some measure of the sexiness and glamour that comes with smoking.
“To say that smoking has no coolness factor is, regrettably, a head-in-the-sand, Nancy Reagan way of looking at things,” Shelov said.
Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit
As disgusting as it may be, smokers still have a right to their cigarette breaks. But on Yale’s campus, they seldom feel free to relax and enjoy a few minutes of unbothered indulgence.
“I’ve had several people who don’t even know me come up and say that I shouldn’t smoke and that smoking is bad for me, which never happens in London,” Claire Gordon ’10 said.
Gordon, who grew up in the UK, said that she feels guilty when the master of her college sees her lighting up in the Saybrook courtyard. And while Gordon is not proud that she smokes, she is aware that non-smokers see the behavior as a “petulant act of rebelliousness,” which emboldens them to speak up and “nanny” smokers into quitting.
No one, no matter what he’s doing, wants to be approached on the street and told that his way of life isn’t good enough, Lewis explains. Dismissive staring, unwarranted fake-coughing and stray, misguided remarks aimed at smoking are rude and uncivil.
“If I’m ever making you uncomfortable by smoking, just please be polite and tell me it bothers you — I can understand,” Lewis said. “I don’t need to hear how it causes cancer or smells bad.”
In fact, unwanted public service announcements may have the very opposite effect.
“Usually, when I’m approached on the street by a stranger telling me not to smoke, it’s a lascivious older man warning me of imminent crows’ feet,” Cally Fiedorek ’10 said, “in which case I light up another one to spite his pedantry.”
Make hay while the sun shines
“I think it’s monstrous!” Duncombe exclaims, as the subject turns back to banning smoking from the movies — his classics fellows starting to disperse, bemoaning the Greek translations they’ll be working on all evening. “When I saw Leonardo DiCaprio smoking in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I told myself I would never go without it.”
While not all believers in the aesthetic beauty of smoking are as candid as Duncombe, the subject of interfering with a filmmaker’s right to objectionable content does get people talking. The best movies, Shelov said, show the world we live in, presenting real characters with real behaviors and flaws. If in real life, smoking indicates a person’s rebellious attitude, then on the big screen, it produces the emotional equivalent of showing him bungee jump.
“Certain characters who in dramatic situations smoke are interesting to us because they have a certain nihilism which is on some level attractive,” Shelov said. “For the same reason that rock-and-roll or fast cars is interesting, anything that shows characters flirting with death engages our subconscious on some level.”
And that engagement with the American subconscious, says John Stuart Gordon, assistant curator of american decorative arts at the Yale Unive
rsity Art Gallery, is firmly rooted in the cultural history of American society.
“During the 1910s and 1920s, young Americans began to question the rigidity of Victorian social mores, which included injunctions against women smoking,” said Gordon (no relation to Claire). “Young women bobbed their hair, drank clandestinely and smoked in public — vices became acts of liberation, almost equal to suffrage.”
Smoking in public was not confined to the days of flappers and Gatsby, Ed Hirs ’79 SOM ’81 said. Less than 30 years ago, you could go to a seminar room in LC, pull from your bag a tattered reading packet, a pencil for jotting notes and a pack of Camels, and, while the professor and half the class did the same, light up a cigarette to accompany your close reading of “Paradise Lost,” Hirs said.
Birds of a feather flock together
Back in the day, Hirs said, smokers tended to hang together and bum cigarettes off each other. Now, increased public disapproval of smoking has, if anything, made the smoking community even more close-knit.
“Mutual cravings really do provide for a ritualistic base among friends,” Fiedorek said. “Smoking buddies are precious creatures; I met my best friend here when I needed a light.”
For smokers, the scenario is a common one: You walk out of a crowded, overheated frat house, ask to bum a smoke from a guy or girl you’ve never really met before and spend about five minutes in each other’s company, probably talking about smoking, since it’s the most obvious thing you have in common.
Persaud claims that he meets people “all the time” because of smoking.
“Bumming a cigarette or a light is a good way to get people to talk to each other,” he said.
Many people, like Persaud, tend to smoke only in situations when they are out and about. Recent research has determined that the phenomenon of “social smoking” is not merely a Yale thing; it’s a college thing.
“Social smoking, which I would define as something that occurs on a non-daily basis, comprises a decent percentage of smokers,” McKee said. “Thirty percent of college students are current smokers, and 25 percent of that number are non-daily smokers.”
As you build, such your house
Still, smokers — whether daily or non-daily — pay a price for a little extra ease in social situations. Aside from causing cancer and other diseases, smoking has been found to run the gamut of negative effects on various aspects of life, such as job productivity and the health of one’s family, Sindelar said.
Or one’s neighbors.
“It’s nasty, and it smells bad,” Kayla Cagle ‘08 said. Cagle, who suffers from asthma, says her close proximity to the Branford courtyard — a typical smoker hangout — means she often has to shut her windows to keep the smoke out. The resulting hot, stuffy air tends to irritate her asthma even more.
“I had to spend time in DUH because my asthma got so bad,” Cagle said. “I had to have nebulizer treatments.”
And it’s not just asthmatics who can’t handle turning a corner and running into a thick wall of smoke. Bram Wayman ’09 called it “obtrusive” and “nasty.” And Natalie Razo ’09 said avoiding atmospheric cigarette smoke is one thing, but avoiding stale smoker breath is a matter of greater concern.
“If people want to smoke, it’s fine with me as long as they don’t blow it in my face or expect to make out with me,” she said. “I think smoking is bad for you, and I don’t want my friends doing it … because I don’t want them to have complications later in life.”
But non-smokers’ concern over the health effects of nicotine and tobacco are rivaled only by the irreverence with which smokers treat their coughing, shortness of breath and impending doom.
“When I have a cold my lungs get so hoarse I can simulate the exact sound of a cat’s purr by simply exhaling,” Fiedorek said.
“Some people smoke, and they might get lung cancer. Some people go to tanning beds, and they might get skin cancer. Some people talk on their cell phones — brain cancer,” Lewis shrugged. “Everyone has bad, unhealthy habits.”
Lewis’ reasoning is neither self-delusion nor silver lining, Duncombe suggests, grinding a cigarette butt into the ground with his heel and clearly readying himself to bail.
“Smoking does wonders for your skin,” he says, with deadpan delivery. “And it causes impotence, which I like to refer to as built-in birth control.”