Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Young People Still Smoke Cigarettes

The unfortunate lure of seduction over stigma.

Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay
Source: Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay

Do young people still smoke cigarettes? Many people are surprised to hear, that the answer is yes. Although we are decades past the promotion of cigarettes as a personality enhancer or a weight loss aid, smoking apparently remains linked with body image, both physically and psychologically.

Overestimating Benefit, Underestimating Danger

Ninfa C. Peña-Purcell et al. (2018) studied the association of cigarette smoking with perceptions about self-confidence and body image, in addition to emotional benefits and health hazards.[i] Using a sample of college students, they found smokers more likely to perceive resulting emotional benefits and enhanced body image as compared with nonsmokers; results that are consistent with prior research.

Acknowledging the potentially lifetime dangers associated with cigarette smoking, in addition to the likelihood of taking it up during college years, Peña-Purcell et al. found that many college student smokers apparently underestimate the resulting harm. In addition, they note the positive correlation between tobacco use, alcohol, and marijuana, and recognize that college students who engage in risky behavior such as using drugs are significantly more likely to be daily or non-daily smokers than nonsmokers.

Where does the link between smoking and positive body image come from? Possibly, at least in some cases, from exactly where you might expect young people to see the connection: the Internet.

The Myth of the Sexy, Healthy, Smoker

Kyongseok Kim et al. studied “Smoking Fetish” videos on YouTube, described as the eroticized portrayal of smoking. [ii] Kim et al. note that although researchers have examined the portrayal of smoking on television and in the movies, few studies have examined smoking images online. Accordingly, they analyzed the impact of smoking fetish videos on young people according to social cognitive theory, and also discussed the important resulting implications for tobacco control measures.

Kim et al. adopt a definition of fetishism as "intense sexual urges and fantasies involving non-living objects and related behavior." Along those lines they note that individuals with smoking fetishism may focus on smoking-related behaviors such as “lighting up, inhaling, exhaling, or holding or dangling tobacco products.” They observe that smoking fetish videos include images of women smoking seductively while clothed fully or partially, in addition to behavior such as “quasi-sexual intercourse” while smoking a cigarette.

Vicarious Learning Through the Wrong Role Models

They note that through social cognitive theory, an attractive character in a smoking fetish video can become a role model for adolescents to light up as a result of observational or vicarious learning. Sexualizing smoking can also make it more salient and cause young people to associate it with short-term benefits and expected positive outcomes.

Kim et al. ultimately conclude that young people may form the opinion that smoking is sexy through a process of vicarious learning. As young people are considered more susceptible to media portrayals than adults as a general rule, they may be more inclined to adopt a favorable view of imagery depicting young, sexy, healthy female smokers. They observe that sexual imagery thereby impacts adolescent smoking behavior in the sense that portraying it as sexy may influence young people to smoke notwithstanding their exposure to warnings about potential long-term negative health consequences.

Countering Fantasy with Facts: A Recipe for Positive Change

As with adults, people can be won over by facts over fiction, especially coming from famous, credible sources. Doctors, celebrities, and role models have joined the fight to educate our youth about the dangers of smoking. Considering the research indicating why they continue to light up, combined with the strides we have made to decrease sex appeal and increase stigma, we are optimistic we can continue the fight.

Counteracting positive portrayals of cigarette smoking online and in person, through outreach and education, we can continue our attempt to promote healthy living and healthy habits from a young age.


[i] Ninfa C. Peña-Purcell, Rhonda N. Rahn & Taylor Dailey Atkinson (2018), "Assessing College Students’ Perceptions About Cigarette Smoking: Implications for Prevention," American Journal of Health Education, 49:3, 147-154, DOI: 10.1080/19325037.2018.1428701.

[ii] Kyongseok Kim, Hye-Jin Paek, and Jordan Lynn (2010), “A Content Analysis of Smoking Fetish Videos on Youtube: Regulatory Implications for Tobacco Control,” Health Communication 25:2, 97–106, DOI:10.1080/10410230903544415.