Becoming a smoker
Generally, young people demonstrate their possession of cultural capital and secure their position within social hierarchies on the basis of what and how they consume (Thornton 1996). To this end, young women's narratives of learning to smoke and their attempts to embody ‘smoking cool’ can be read as the accrual of capital, or the acquisition of social skills and competencies that serve as markers of distinction (Bourdieu 1986). Some young women portrayed themselves as coming to smoking with an existing cultural knowledge or ‘smoker's capital’, a natural affinity for smoking thought to occur by virtue of one's previous exposure to tobacco in their home or community environments. Likewise, through their experiences and interactions with other young tobacco users adolescents described building up their smoking identities and the capital which resulted from being recognised as skilled or ‘real’ smokers (Quintero and Davis 2002).
In the interviews, participants were asked to recall the memory of their first cigarette and to tell the story of how they began to smoke. Given the adolescent imperative to portray oneself as above overt social influences (Jettéet al. 2007), it was not surprising that there were few descriptions of having consciously to learn or be taught how to smoke. On the contrary, many stated that smoking came to them easily through watching others:
At first I wasn't sure if I was like inhaling it properly so I was like . . . okay, this is how. Nobody really just taught me how. I just learned it with time by myself I guess . . . I usually watched other people how they smoked, definitely. I was like, okay . . . That's pretty simple (Danielle, 17).
The narratives reinforced the idea of being a self-taught smoker, learning through observation and repetition, rather than active instruction. As explained by one participant, this might take place privately in the company of a friend who was also a new smoker, who provided a type of social mirror and peer mentorship. Tanya described a more self-directed process of experimentation:
I can't really remember . . . I probably did (practise) though . . . Like making sure I held it right and making sure I ashed properly and like all the different ways to hold it and the different ways to ash your cigarette, and like the different ways to put it out and like everything, like. And I guess after a while I just out formed my own way about how I smoke and how I put it out and everything else (Tanya, 19).
Seventeen-year-old Brynne also described learning to smoke as incorporating unconscious bodily competency through practice, as: ‘I think it just came with time, like the more I smoked, like you learn how to inhale . . . like now it's just to the point that you don't even notice’. This process of moving from beginner to experienced smoker relies heavily on exposure to the range of practices associated with tobacco use, and also on access to informal cultural knowledge about how smoking is ‘done’ in adolescence. As described by participants, learning to smoke involved a subtle or gradual inculcation into a ‘smoker's habitus’, through observing other smokers in their families and social networks. Although some projected a sense of nonchalance about their first experiences with tobacco, others were more forthcoming about their desire to be seen as smoking correctly, especially by adolescents they viewed as possessing greater smoker's capital:
I would sit there in the room, we were all sitting there and I would like kind of light a cigarette, but I knew, it was really like nerve-wracking for me because I didn't know how to do it and everyone else had been doing it already and I kind of just looked stupid . . . I knew they noticed . . . but they didn't really say anything (Renée, 18).
Renée highlights the need for new smokers to develop smoking skills quickly and quietly, to avoid ‘getting caught’ and receiving a dreaded social corrective from peers (Banwell and Young 1993). As told by Kyra, once she had established competency she could easily recognise an inexperienced smoker:
I was a painfully awkward smoker for the first while because you can tell by looking at someone if they have just started smoking . . . Like they don't really inhale and you can see in the smoke that they don't inhale and they hold it really awkwardly . . . You could completely tell, I was like that for like a week . . . It's hilarious now because when I see people like that I'm thinking, I was like you (Kyra, 16).
As we have argued previously, ‘smoking is not only a social practice but also a bodily one, in that how the cigarette is held and smoked can demonstrate bodily competence . . . that must be acquired through practice’ (Poland et al. 2006: 61). The need to be seen as a ‘real’ smoker is particularly evident in the narratives of younger tobacco users, some of whom are still struggling with their smoking technique and comportment, attempting to ‘get it right’ and pass as more relaxed, competent and experienced. In Renée's case (quoted above), age and gender differences contributed to her initial awkwardness with cigarettes, as a new smoker amongst a group of older males, friends of her then-new boyfriend.
In considering the distinctions young women made between themselves and more experienced smokers, a Bourdieusian analysis further illustrates how adolescents signify cultural capital through mastering the largely unspoken knowledge around the correct way to smoke (McCracken 1992, Plumridge et al. 2002). Likewise, smoking can also symbolise one's initiation of ‘grown up’ practice as ‘the subtle bodily schemas incorporated in the cultural practice of smoking [are]osmotic reflexes of the transition into adulthood’ (R. Danesi 1993 cited in Krange and Pedersen 2001: 170, emphasis in original). For Mackenzie, this consisted of moving from what she termed ‘fake’ smoking when first experimenting during pre-adolescence (i.e. not really inhaling), to ‘real’ and regular smoking as a teenager. Although not everyone would admit to smoking incorrectly or to faking it, this fake/real distinction points to the imperative of demonstrating a seemingly effortless skill with cigarettes as a key aspect of the cool adolescent's social repertoire. Consequently, smoker's capital is not only about doing it right, but is also about doing it for real, as self-conscious smoking does not carry much weight among adolescents.
As stated previously, among this group there were those who came to the field with greater initial smoker's capital, stemming mainly from cigarette use in their home environments. As shown by Moffat and Johnson's (2001) narrative study, female adolescents may have strong recollections of watching their mothers smoke, and therefore view their own smoking as a family-based practice or as ‘history repeating itself’. For example, in our study two participants described being influenced by their mothers, and mimicking their smoking as children using crayons or pencils. Michelle also said she was smoking ‘fluently’ by the age of 12 or 13, attributing this to growing up in a home where both parents smoked. Likewise, Winona who had begun to smoke at age fourteen stated:
I'd been around smoke like a lot in my life. My mom smokes and like her boyfriend smokes, so like, I don't know. And I'm just like walking around, like everyone's smoking like outside like around the neighbourhood. So I guess it's not like I really like looked and like sat down and like watched them smoke, but like just something like on TV and movies, like you just see it, pick it up . . . I was pretty, like I knew what I was doing the first time I did it. It's not like anyone like taught me how (Winona, 16).
Winona draws from multiple sources to establish her smoker's capital, including her family, neighbourhood, media exposure, making a case for smoking as something that came to her naturally given the circumstances of her childhood upbringing within a relatively privileged context. While the focus of this paper is the adolescent social field, it should be emphasised that in Bourdieu's social praexology, the domestic field functions as the primary arena for the transmission of capital, with resources passed from parent to child to ensure the social reproduction of the family and its members (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). This does not imply a deterministic model of socialisation, or that young people are cultural dupes who blindly adopt the social and health practices present within their families of origin. On the contrary, in the domestic or family field, habitus reproduces certain practices as normal and natural for its members (i.e. what is right for us, what ‘we’ always do).
Outside the family context, another teenager (Wanda) described smoking initiation as a major social activity for young people in the government-subsidised housing project where she grew up:
Whoever got a cigarette from wherever, we'd all come together and we would smoke it. And it would be like a social event. We'd all get into like a crowd and we'd be hiding somewhere, you know, smoking our cigarette and we'd learn different things, especially from the older people who were there, who were the more experienced smokers. We would learn like how to hold a cigarette in our mouth without using our hands and how to blow smoke out your nose and things like that . . . (Wanda, 19).
Wanda was one of only a few participants who spoke of receiving direct instruction from peers. Yet as she suggests, an important aspect of this teaching and learning dynamic among adolescents is that older or more experienced smokers might also derive status and capital by having younger teenagers emulate them, and through being sought after to share their skill in smoking. In this way, a Bourdieusian reconsideration illustrates that learning to smoke may not be the product of overt peer pressures, but is a much subtler process of adolescents acquiring capital specific to their social and domestic fields.
The capital in addiction
While adolescents are exposed to significant cultural rhetoric regarding smokers as stigmatised and morally deficient (Bottorff et al. 2004), in this study the ‘addict identity’ associated with smoking was recast by some to take on more positive connotations. As the qualitative tobacco literature has shown, young women's descriptions of tobacco addiction are more fluid than adults’, as they tend to move between different categories of smoking (Moffat and Johnson 2001). For teenage smokers, adoption of the ‘addicted smoker’ label is linked to the degree that tobacco use has been integrated into their daily lives and identities, rather than to actual physical dependence (Johnson et al. 2003).
Participants made frequent reference to addiction, although the interviewer was careful not to introduce this terminology. A range of viewpoints was expressed concerning what constituted addiction and the implications of being an addicted smoker. Below, one young woman expresses ambivalence:
I don't feel like, some days like, when I work, I don't need one all day. Like I don't physically need a cigarette. But sometimes, it's like I'm not addicted but I am. Like, sometimes I do like, I feel that I need it . . . I think it's all about how, like your willpower. I don't know, ‘cause like, I think I could easily quit if I wanted to, like right now. But it's just like when you’re around it, it's the type of thing that once you've been doing it for a while . . . like you want to stop and then you see somebody smoking or just like, ‘I’ll just have a cigarette’ (Renée, 18).
Other participants explicitly labelled themselves as addicts, or employed language that referenced dependency. This included speaking of being ‘in need of a fix’ to describe nicotine withdrawal, or needing to ‘kick’ the tobacco habit. The notion of addicted smoker as a capital-bearing identity was a subtle thread present in the findings, as there were young women who appeared to relish their experiences of craving or ‘fiending’ for cigarettes. Just as learning to smoke with minimal effort was central to smoker's capital, some also seemed to view addiction as a marker of authentic smoking. Winona explained her rationale for feigning addiction as a beginning smoker:
Like, I liked it and I enjoyed it, it was like, socially. And I guess I just like kind of pretended I was addicted, like, ‘Oh I need a cigarette.’ but it's all like, ‘I'm a smoker now I need a cigarette.’ But now that I think about it, I think it actually took me a year and a half to get addicted. Like the stupid year and a half (Winona, 16).
Based on their descriptions, one can assume that many participants would not meet formal criteria for nicotine dependence, given that their smoking was often episodic, punctuated by interruptions, limited supply, and tied to sporadic social engagements. Regardless of the presence of physiological dependence, these data highlight the social significance of addiction, whereby adopting the identity and practices of an addicted smoker confers legitimacy and status in the eyes of others.
Although addiction was typically portrayed as a loss of control, there were some who indicated that learning to manage addiction was a valuable skill acquired through practice. As suggested by Johnson et al. (2004), young and beginning smokers actively engage with strategies to limit or moderate their tobacco use. Below is Morgan's account of this process:
I don't want to be smoking for the rest of my life, even if I don't feel like I am addicted. Like right now I feel addicted. But when I quit last time I didn't feel addicted, it's just that I would, (then) one weekend I had, like from Friday night to Saturday night I had like a pack and then I also bummed so I probably had like a pack-and-a-half, a pack and like a quarter or something. So like 32, 33 cigarettes. And I felt that was too much. That wasn't how much I wanted to be smoking, so I quit for a while because I didn't want to be smoking six packs a week (Morgan, 16).
In addition to highlighting fears about becoming permanently addicted, Morgan's narrative suggests awareness that smoking may no longer be a source of capital as she grows older. Similarly, another participant made the astute observation that contemporary anti-smoking messaging works to diminish smoker's capital, perpetuating the view that smokers are powerless in the face of their addiction:
I think one of the major problems with or reasons that smoking persists in society is the fact that people are telling them how hard it is to quit. ‘Oh, my God, it's so addictive’, blah, blah, blah. So people get it in their heads as soon as they start smoking, ‘Oh, God, I'm an addict, I'm never going to be able to quit’ (Yvette, 18).
As Yvette suggests, definitions of addiction employed by tobacco and health campaigns may lack resonance for many young people and may undercut their sense of agency by denying or ignoring their skill in managing their lives. In addition to being somewhat out-of-step with the cultural currency of addiction within adolescence, the promotion of abstinence-only approaches also fails to capitalise on opportunities for tobacco harm minimisation, and strategies that build upon young people's existing efforts to monitor, reduce and control their smoking (Johnson et al. 2004).
In relation to the theme of addiction, some participants disclosed other substance use, and described how trajectories from dependence to recovery provided them with valuable life experience or adult survival skills. About a quarter of the young women said they had experienced significant problems with the use of other drugs or alcohol. Within this group, two participants had recently been in residential drug treatment programmes, and the rhetoric of addiction and sobriety figured prominently within their narratives (e.g. 12-steps recovery principles such as, ‘one day at a time’) (Warhol 2002). For one young woman, the recovery experience entailed status and a profound sense of accomplishment:
I'm turning 17 soon, so I grew up really, really fast. But um, but it's really cool because I experienced it and like, even though it's not a good experience, and I regret it every day for like going through that, but it's like a really big like, like achievement . . . None of my friends have been through what I've been through (Bronwen, 16).
Despite drawing strength and self-insight from recovery, Bronwen also described the stigma and moral judgments she encountered:
And it sucks because like now that you have, like a ‘recovering drug addict’ is like a title. It's like people don't look at you the same. Like some people still don't respect me for what I did, but it's okay. I don't have to gain their respect, I have my own respect . . . Or when you’re trying to have a serious conversation with them, they’ll treat you like you’re invisible. ‘Cause like ‘Oh, she doesn't know what she's talking about’ . . . I'm like ‘I may not be like book smarts and all that, but I know myself and know how you people are’.
Not all narratives of addiction included a redemptive discourse of recovery as personal achievement, as this appeared to be limited to young women from families with increased access to economic and social capital. For some such participants, addiction was framed as a minor derailment typical in adolescence:
And so we went to parties and stuff and it just happened that I started doing drugs and they took over because everyone was doing them. And so I was like 11 and I was doing acid and I was, later on I was selling stuff and I was sleeping around to get money for stuff. Like I went through that horrible ‘Montel’ (television talk-show) stage for years of my life. I'm 17 and I can say I've gone through all that and I don't do it any more (Danika, 17 years old).
For Danika, it appeared that her path to becoming an adult involved ‘messing up,’ going through a ‘bad’ stage, before getting her life back on track. So while status as a recovering addict might provide a sense of accomplisment and life experience, the ability to draw from other hard sources of capital undoubtedly plays a role in orienting young women towards a successful and addiction-free future. For example, Danika's parents were able to send her on a student exchange overseas once she had completed drug rehabilitation, to ‘try and straighten me out’, as she described it.2
Finally, there were also participants who intuited that the cultural capital associated with substance use was perhaps limited to adolescence, and that modifying their smoking, drinking or drug use would be prudent as they moved into adulthood. In her last year of high school, a participant from a higher-status family background described her experiences navigating between different groups of ‘normal’ versus ‘party’ friends:
I have only two girlfriends that I'm best friends with going to university next year, and they’re the ones who aren't smokers . . . And tend to not smoke marijuana and tend to not go out every night drinking. So I'm really proud of them for that, but all of my other close friends are the people that I hang out with in the neighbourhood aren't going to university, and not really excelling in school. So I wouldn't classify them as anybody. They’re good people but . . . I think ’cause we all like to, we’re all used to the old like, young party age, so we've kind of grown up being around that (Carrie, 18).
By contrast, although Wanda was from a very disadvantaged family context and had left secondary school early on, she held views similar to Carrie's regarding the social distinctions between smokers and non-smokers:
Well, back then I wouldn't have looked at it as oh, the ‘bad crowd,’ but now, ‘cause I'm older, and I realise that education is everything, you can't do anything without education. That's why I look at them and I categorise them as the ‘bad crowd’ because you know, they’re not doing good if they’re out, you know, smoking and hanging out and, you know, just talking and you know, I guess partying when they’re supposed to be in school . . . (Wanda, 19).
These excerpts suggest that the factors linked to young women's social success and status in adolescence can run counter to the cultural capital typically theorised as contributing to their academic achievement and upward social mobility. Outside the educational field, learning how to juggle social and academic roles, and having the ability to party without having it interfere with school and other responsibilities is another way that young people's substance use can entail a field-specific capital and skill. Yet there is also a need to consider that for those with diminished access to other capitals, tobacco and other substance use might function as identity resources they are reluctant to leave behind as they become adults. As argued by Pilkington (2007) there are ongoing tensions between structural and cultural explanations within sociological research on youth cultures and drug use, and a need for an approach that considers substance use as socially embedded practice that ‘individuals and groups enact, not only as responses to, but as strategies for negotiating and shaping, their structural contexts’ (2007: 223).