Smoking accepted for social bonds, despite health risks

College is when many individuals first start smoking as a social activity. (Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.)

“No smoking please” can be heard on the T every day. Although students are not supposed to smoke at Northeastern University, cigarette butts litter the campus, especially around Snell Library, with the sign “smoking-free campus” ignored in the garden.


Joel Cao, 23, who just got off from work and met his friends at Chatime on Huntington Avenue, leaned against the wall, lit a cigarette from his pocket and began chatting with his friends.

Cao graduated from Northeastern last year with a degree in business administration and works at a start-up company. Three years ago, he started smoking, always keeping a pack. “It was just for fun at the beginning,” said Cao. “Now it’s something I will do when I am free.”

Carmen Chan, 20, a sophomore in international business at Northeastern, got a cigarette from Cao. “I am not really addicted to nicotine,” Chan said. She guessed she lit up once a week, only with friends.

Individuals of Chinese descent buy large quantities of cigarettes – research shows a third of the Chinese population are smokers at roughly 316 million, which is a higher rate than any other nation in the world. Smoking is not an individual behavior in Chinese society, but a social phenomenon for people to interact with each other. It is not uncommon to see Chinese college students in their 20s smoking and talking, just like Chan and Cao.

College is when most people start smoking. According to an online survey conducted by Tencent with 62,960 smokers in 2016, 37.9 percent of them begin smoking at the age of 18 to 22. Meanwhile, the age for smokers to start is dropping – 80 percent of smokers who born in 1990s began to smoke at the age of 14 to 22.

Jayden Lou, 21, a third-year computer science student in Northeastern, started smoking a year ago when his friends passed him a cigarette to try after dinner. “I don’t smoke with an empty stomach –most of time, I smoke with my friends after dinner or class, rather than alone,” Lou said. He limits himself to three cigarettes a day. “I don’t think I have an addiction. Watching my friends smoking is almost the only cue for me. Otherwise, I just don’t think about smoking.”

Smokers like Lou are “social smokers” – they smoke occasionally, almost always in groups; and they do not consider themselves addicted to nicotine because they never graduated to a daily habit, despite having their first smoke years ago. Researchers at the University of Missouri’s School of Medicine found students use social events such as partying and work as cues to smoke. For Chinese millennials, they tend to have dinner together or throw a party; when someone wants to smoke, it triggers the other smokers to do so as well. A survey in China randomly sampled 1,327 male college students, with nearly half of the 207 smokers identifying themselves as social smokers.

Social smoking is part of Chinese etiquette, seen as a way to build friendships. (Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.)

Social smoking is nothing new for Chinese etiquette. Cigarettes help build social networks and express friendship. In China, private rooms at restaurants are always clouded by smoke, and it is not uncommon to see men giving cigarettes to each other, regardless of whether they are old friends or acquaintances. As I lived in China for 18 years before coming to the United States for college, I have witnessed many dinners kicked off by the host giving everyone a pack of cigarettes, even to children and women. I was confused, but my mother told me, “It’s their way to greet guests.”

Lou said, “I do think smoking is bad for health, but I see it as a way to communicate with people. Sometimes sharing a cigarette can be a good way to break the ice and start a new conversation. Even simple gestures like sharing or lighting cigarettes for someone makes us much closer.”

Chan described Lou as her “smoking buddy.” Chan said, “When we meet on campus after class, we might smoke and chat for a while if one of us happens to have cigarettes on us. When we want to complain about something or just chitchat, we’d light up a cigarette and just chitchat.”

Unlike from Lou and Chan, Cao doesn’t consider himself a social smoker because he sometimes smokes by himself. “But I will join [friends] to smoke and chat, especially when I need to complain or listen others’ complaints – smoking doesn’t necessarily get rid of the stress or depression, but it builds a bond for us to talk and think,” Cao said.

Smoking as social etiquette to build relationships is gradually normalized by Chinese culture, to some extent. Younger smokers believe as long as they can control themselves, smoking won’t be fatal to their health – and they can quit whenever they want.

“I admit I start smoking for fun, but now it’s not a way of acting cool,” Chan said. She is aware of the side effects of smoking and plans to quit after college, before she gets addicted.

However, researchers at the University of Missouri’s School of Medicine indicate a significant number of smokers do continue smoking even if they intend to quit after college. There is no safe level of smoking and no way to know that once someone starts, that person will be able to easily quit.

No one can deny the harm from smoking or drinking. Every pack of cigarettes carries stern warnings. It’s important to learn about smoking, especially for younger people open to new things.

If your friends smoke, please don’t judge them. Smoking is neither a symbol of “bad kids” nor dissipation; it’s their way to build relationships and cope with stress. But do tell them that smoking is harmful to their health, even though they may already know. When you are with them, use other ways to bond, such as healthy eating. Some cultures are more accepting of smokers; be an accepting friend, especially when a smoker wants to quit.

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