A-Z

Giving up smoking

Parents, friends and first cigarettes

People often have their first smoke as teenagers. Nearly everyone we talked to could clearly remember it and regarded it as an important event. It was nearly always with friends and hidden from other people; some had felt ‘cool’ and rebellious. The first few cigarettes were often smoked at the edge of school grounds, in school toilets or at home when the parents were out. Few seem to have enjoyed their very early experiences, but Jules had always liked the smell of ‘fresh smoke’ even when very young.
 

Cassie had become a regular smoker by the time she was 13.

View full profile
Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I took my cigarettes to school. I didn’t really care. I used to, I used to smoke in front of the teachers, I think by that point it had got to the point where I didn’t care anymore. Like I wanted a cigarette, I would… I remember my cigarettes being confiscated at school, and then I had to send my Mum in to get them back. And she got them back, but not to give them back to me. She just thought it was an invasion of my privacy and they shouldn’t have taken my possessions. So she got them back but then she kept them away from me. But I managed to get them back obviously. I would say I was smoking about ten a day, which is quite a lot for someone of that age isn’t it? I think it is.

Lots of people do.

Yes, but I speak to people now, and they are like older than me, and they are like I smoked. And I say, “How much do you smoke?” And they go, “Five.” And I’m like, and they’re like, “Yeah it’s a lot.” And I’m like, “No not really.” So I think at the age of 13 it’s a lot it really is. And you know, ten, ten a day, you know, in school breaks, before school, after school. I used to smoke in my room, in the baths, in the toilets, smoke anywhere like. So yes, I smoked quite a bit.
 

Roger tried to smoke five times before he could inhale without feeling sick. He didn’t realise at first that people inhaled smoke into the lungs.

View full profile
Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
So when I was sixteen and a half, I went to what was known as a technical college, and I was sat at one of the tables in the canteen and people were drawing in their tobacco and then going [pssss] and ‘where’s that gone?’ And it just vanished and I thought ‘oh no, I’m not doing this right,’ you know, and people were laughing at me. So I went into the toilets. A long row of sinks and a huge one piece strip of mirror, right down the whole length of the toilets, with the cubicles behind me. So I stood in front of the mirror and I took a cigarette out. Five Woodbines I had. You could buy cigarettes in packets of five. I took one out, lit it with a match, and then very, very reluctantly tried to inhale. The first time, I choked, so I gave it a moment. The second time, down it went. Oh and I watched myself, literally, in front of my eyes, in the mirror, go green. And I felt sick and I rushed into one of the toilet cubicles and threw up. And it was horrible. So I came out. Now anybody with one brain cell even would have said, ‘not for me, not me.’ Persistent. I go back to the mirror. Pick up the burning cigarette which has burnt the wooden shelves slightly…[inhales] down it goes, and I go slightly green, I go green but not quite as deep green as before, sick, back into the cubicle, throw up. This happened in all four times. On the fifth occasion I become a real smoker, I could inhale all the way in, without being sick, so I thought ‘great.’ So I lit up my next, my last cigarette. Took a deep drag [sucking noise] went back into the refectory, pushed the doors, and there was nobody there, they’d all gone.
It is rare for people to relish the taste of a cigarette the first time - almost everyone talked about not liking the taste, feeling sick, or coughing a lot. Roger described watching his face turn green in a mirror the first time he inhaled smoke.

Some people had been strongly against smoking as children and couldn’t have imagined that they would later smoke themselves. Roger had dreaded going for drives with his family on a Sunday, as his grandmother would be in the car ‘chain smoking’. Laura said only one of her uncles smoked, and had felt he was ‘letting the family down’.
 

Raf was very anti-smoking before he went on a trip to Pakistan. His friends were surprised when he came back a smoker.

View full profile
Age at interview: 40
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
It felt, it didn’t feel odd or weird as such, it was just a case of not knowing how to smoke, but just lighting up and just trying it for that first time. And I enjoyed it, if I be honest with you. And after that basically it just led on from there and there. And it would get in, as time were going by, I just ended up smoking more, and becoming a regular smoker, and obviously with my health as well, I shouldn’t have done in the first place, but I think it was just that type of age, where it was a case of not wanting to do it, it was just doing it for the sake of it.

And how old were you?

I was about sixteen and a half years old at the time. And, basically it was friends that I made out there, they were all smokers and I think that may have played a big, big part in the fact that I actually tried it for the first time, and from there, as I say it just, it became an everyday thing.

And was that when you came back to England or…?

Yes. So I can remember when I came back to England, a lot of my friends here, they were all already smoking before I actually went to Pakistan, and I used to always fight with them, as to try to stop them from smoking, but it was a case of them doing what they wanted to do, and not paying any attention to what I was saying. But when I actually started smoking, they used to look at me, they used to say, “You’re the same person that used to try to stop us. How come you’ve started smoking?” And I don’t know, I don’t know how I really explained it to them. But [coughs] it was just... foolishness more than anything else I think, that actually made me carry on smoking. Because in the beginning obviously one cigarette, two cigarettes, it wasn’t a great big deal, but as time went by, I just started smoking more regularly. It became a permanent way of life if you like.
 

Anna was very anti smoking as a child and would hide cigarettes from adults so that they couldn’t smoke.

View full profile
Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I remember actually being, I used, as a child I used to steal people’s cigarettes and I would. I just think, actually, that was probably very, I just thought oh how I would have responded if a kid had done to me. We used to steal peoples fags and then they would sort of say, “Why did you do it?” And we’d say, “Well we don’t want you to die.” So it was like, you know, we’re trying to rescue you, we’re trying to… or we would kind of change the packaging so there was, there was a particular brand in German that’s called The Lord, and if you changed the L to an M it was, it was the German word for murder. So we’d change it while they weren’t looking. So we were sort of like a little anti smoking campaigners as at that point. And I remember, distinctly remember at the Natural History Museum where I grew up had a… the lung of a smoker on display and how disgusting it looked. And I went back two years ago to find it, but it’s no longer there [laughs]. I actually went and said, “I have this memory and was it there?” And then someone said, “No, no, no, you must be imagining it.” And they eventually found someone who said, “Yes, we did have this kind of a display…” It was like was I imagining this, because I had this really vivid memory of it. So yes, I mean I think, you know, there was definitely the sense that you shouldn’t do it, but I just thought well, you know, so what, you know, it was that sort of.. So I needed to find some way of turning it from a you shouldn’t to, I don’t want to. And I suppose... I don’t know, I just get the idea that it is weird that I do actually think that. I didn’t think it was going to work, so I had to… I didn’t think the sort of smoking bans and all that stuff would really have an effect, but I did get an idea that teenagers don’t, maybe I’m totally wrong, but I get the idea that they don’t have that same sort of, it’s not so much part of their culture or what you do. But then I guess it’s just, it has been marginalised and that makes it easier not to smoke I think for people.
‘Peer pressure’ was often mentioned but is complicated because some people saw smoking as way of getting access to a desirable group of friends. Some said friends pushed them into smoking, others only thought about such pressure when looking back on their experiences.

Friends were often important in early smoking experiences. Some people thought that ‘everybody’ smoked when they grew up. Others hung around with a particular group of friends who had a certain type of identity – and with that came smoking. Abdul reminisced about smoking cannabis with his friends on a summer’s day and listening to great music in the car. Others had first experienced smoking when they first tried cannabis. Anna said cigarettes were easily available from vending machines when she went abroad on a school trip.
 

At high school Andy and his mates all smoked cigarettes, but unlike some of the other groups at school they did not really go to pubs.

View full profile
Age at interview: 31
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
And you know, I suddenly found myself three or four years later, still smoking, and obviously completely addicted by that stage, as I probably was after about two weeks. And it was, I don’t know, it actually became quite a big part of our group ethic. A lot of what we did when we were teenagers. Especially when some of our mates were going to the pub, we never really did that, we’d just go off different places and have a fag on a hill top somewhere and then go somewhere else for a cigarette.

And it was quite defining as to what we did. Which is a bit weird really, but it was, I don’t know, I guess that one of those things where people say it’s a social thing isn’t it? But that’s kind of how I got into it and that’s how I sort of maintained smoking for such a long time.

Tell me some more about that. How it defined what you did?

Well I mean, a good example of that, actually, is when we used to go to a Little Chef, there’s a Little Chef on the A420 between Oxford and Swindon, and you can, this is back in the days when you could smoke in places, and you’d go, we’d go and sit down, order a pot of tea, because they were free refills. So we’d order a pot of tea and just sit there for the entire afternoon or the entire evening, smoking, and having smokes and having tabs we called them.

And then we, I don’t know we were always, always quite precious about what kind of brands. Everybody had their own specific brands, but you know, they were, they were sort of the cool brands that we always wanted to have. But then, you know, ultimately it’s just down to price in the end of the day, when you’re sort of 16, 17 years old. But it was I don’t know, it literally, it literally defined what we do of an evening. It’s where we would go. I mean to be honest with you, it’s just about having a chat with your mates more than anything else. Same, same as you do in a coffee shop or in a pub or in you know, when you’re walking down the street. But we were just doing by, well we’ll find somewhere nice to go and have a smoke.

And we, we did that for a really long time. But it saved us loads of cash, because all our mates were spending all their money on booze down the pub. And we were just going backwards and forwards having cups of tea here and there and smoking cigarettes. But it was and I think after a while that actually, that’s probably why I associated smoking for such a long time, what I actually really enjoyed, smoking, the process of smoking, having a smoke. Whether it’s just popping out with, popping outside with somebody to have a fag or whether it was just a matter of you know, I’m a bit bored, what shall I do? I’m going to pop outside for a fag. Or you know… have a beer, have a cup of tea. Watch a film, and have a couple of cigarettes and you know, I think, you know, some people who just smoke do, just smoke through the routine out of it, just because they’re addicted to it and it’s just something they do. But I think we, I mean myself as well, me and all my friends, we just really enjoyed it. And it became, it became, yes, it became a driving force [laughs]. It was, it was really strange really.
 

Laura wanted to fit in with new school friends so gave in to peer pressure to smoke at a party.

View full profile
Age at interview: 32
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I remember so clearly one day when we were all talking about the party we were going to on the Friday night in one of the villages and the five of them were just all saying to me, “Come on you’re going to smoke aren’t you? You’ve got to it’ll be brilliant.” And really going on and on and on and it reaches a point where I went, “Yes, all right then.” Partly to shut them up, not really because I thought I’d do. But also because I was thinking it doesn’t matter any way if I do. Nothing’ll happen. I’m not going to suddenly be addicted for ever or anything like that. So… yes, a lot of pressure [laughs].

And so was it at that party that you smoked?

Yes. Yes. This isn’t really connected to smoking at all, but that first cigarette I was given wasn’t a cigarette it was marijuana which I didn’t know at the time. I got told later. I wasn’t happy about that [laughs]. I thought that was a bit naughty. But yes, that was, that just sort of, it became a natural and normal thing to do. It wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t think I’d get addicted. I didn’t really care about any of that.

The main thing was, I still quite new at the school, and I was fitting in, that was what actually mattered much more than anything else.

So what was the experience like at the party?

It was fine. Yes. I smoked my joint, which I didn’t know was a joint [laughs]. Didn’t cough or anything I’ve always been able to handle, you know, the strong alcohol or the shots, anything, nothing like that makes me cough. So then I got quite a lot of kudos for that. Wow is it your first time? And you didn’t cough and all this sort of thing. Yes, okay. And it was fine. And that was, I was just cool then, obviously, because I smoked. That was it.
It is well known that young people are more likely to smoke if their parents do. One reason is availability, another is that a parent who smokes is less likely to smell smoke on their child. Young people sometimes stole a cigarette from a relative, or found a fag end in an ashtray and took it to school. Chris told us she took the “odd one” from her Mum’s purse. Judith said that she had seen a cigarette on the path to her house for a couple of days before she decided to try it.
 

Sue’s Dad smoked – she remembers taking a cigarette stub from the ashtray at home.

View full profile
Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
But my first time I ever had a cigarette, I actually, my Father left one stub in an ashtray and I took it upstairs with a box of matches. I can’t actually remember whether it was a box of matches, or it must have been a box of matches, and I went and it in the bathroom. But because I was so young, and I have no idea how old I was, but it was less than ten. I took it upstairs in the bathroom, stood on the toilet, but didn’t switch the light on. My Dad had gone outside, and [laughs] and of course he could see the end that I’d lit it. But he came upstairs and by the time he got there I’d hidden it, but I always knew he knew. If you know what I mean. And it was, I remember it being quite horrible, but I remember that it, because everybody did it, I thought that it couldn’t be horrible. 
Sometimes smokers’ children start to smoke because they see their parents and other adults as role models. Some people said that they had thought that smoking was ‘just what you did’ as an adult. Sue recollected looking up to an older Girl Guide smoking and ‘hero worshipping’ her. Roger had thought it was ‘manly’ to have yellow nicotine stains on the tips of your fingers. People in their 40s, 50s and 60s talked about growing up in households where many people smoked, or spending time in pubs where cigarettes were readily available and ‘everybody smoked’. Lisa remembered the smell of smoke drifting into her bedroom as soon as her mother opened the door first thing in the morning.
 

When Sue was a child in the 1960s smoking was a normal habit.

View full profile
Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
My parents, my grandparents, my aunts, my, actually on my father’s side his siblings and their spouses and his Mother didn’t smoke, but he did and on my mother’s side everybody smoked. So my grandparents, uncle, so it was, it was kind, and we lived, I lived next door to my grandparents and like three houses away from my aunt and uncle. So all the adults that I had daily contact with smoked. And... my mother told me that when I was really quite a tiny baby she put me on the bed and she must have had a cigarette in her mouth while she was changing my nappy and leant forward and the cigarette sort of almost left me with a bindi mark because she sort of caught me between the eyebrows. And she didn’t stop smoking. She stopped smoking whilst she was changing my nappy. So you know, it wasn’t, it was all done with sort of light hearted banter. And she said to me, “You’ll never guess what happened when you were a baby. Ha ha ha.” So it just was one of those things you know, and my mother had, in fact she died when she was 34 of an asthma attack, and she smoked and I think that, it, certainly at the time didn’t really occur to anybody that it might, her asthma might have been worse because she was smoking. Well it might have done to the adults, but nobody ever said anything at the time like if only she hadn’t smoked. So it was the norm for adults to smoke. And I think that translates itself in a way to kids as being part of the transition to adulthood. You know, if all adults smoke, when you’re an adult you will smoke, therefore I want to try smoking because I want to be grown up. So I think it was a natural progression in a way.
 

Haseen’s father died when he was seven. He wanted to grow up fast and smoking seemed part of becoming a man.

View full profile
Age at interview: 46
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
And all through my life I think I always saw my uncles smoking and so they would smoke foreign cigarettes or something, so I used to think, oh that’s the thing I’ll smoke when I grow up. So it was more like wanting to be a grown up. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I, I started smoking when I was a teenager. I was never a regular, because I could when I was about 13 or 14 I tried smoking, the first couple of drags I could inhale, after that I could not inhale. There’s, you know, I found that I just puff it a little.

Probably I was in ninth grade, ninth grade I tried smoking at home one time in the bathroom. And I just got some cigarettes and I think that if I smoke inside the bathroom nobody will found out. Obviously the smell is there.

My Dad passed away, my Dad passed away when I was 7. So my brother caught me. My older brother caught me. Now he was not there, when he came home, he went to the toilet, and he said, “Somebody smoked in here. Who’s smoking?” [Laughs]. And I said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Come inside, do you smell cigarettes?” I said, “Yes.” “Oh my God.” And he whacked the crap out of me.

He was so upset. He was upset because I think he was seeing me straying away into habits which you know, bad habits, and especially as my Dad was not there, and nobody was there to really you know, put me in, give me some sort of advice. So he was actually more sad than angry. So that’s why he really hit me [laughs]. I was only one time in my life he whacked me that day, yes. So after that I never smoked till I reached college actually. Yes.

So again, I think one of the reasons, if I think back, the reason I started smoking has actually been influenced from seeing the older people, the older generation smoking and I thought it was something cool, and it’s not just cool, to be grown up, you know, so you feel you’re grown up, you’re no longer a child any more. I think it’s also a lot of the psychological thing that had happened to me, when I was a child and I’d lost my Dad. So I wanted to grow fast to be a man, and so by smoking, you think you can become a man, you know, so things like that. I think, thinking back I think some of the reasons that I started smoking would from those, yes. Yes.

But after that you know, I think that’s the reason. Come to think about it I wanted to be a man. So because there was no man in the house, so I wanted to be a man, and therefore if I smoked I’d be a man. So that kind of a feeling, yes. So yes.
Most of those we talked to remembered a very early experience (Neil was only 7) but a few people didn’t even try smoking until they were in their 20s. Mariam had not tried smoking until she went to study, aged 26 in a city in Kyrgyzstan. She grew up in a small village where it was rare to see a woman smoke.

Although the health risks of smoking were widely known when most of these people started smoking, when they were young, people tended to worry more about the risk of getting caught smoking by parents or teachers. Sarah remembered carefully planning her first cigarette and buying strong-smelling crisps to disguise the taste afterwards.

People often had good memories of their early experiences of smoking – hanging out with friends, having greater freedom, finding smoking a nice way to pass the time if they were bored. Some people (like Roger, above) talked about actively ‘learning’ to smoke – learning ways to hold a cigarette or holding smoke in their lungs. Anna said she used to practise this in a mirror.
 

Peter had been a regular cannabis smoker but started smoking straight tobacco when he started doing a PhD.

View full profile
Age at interview: 39
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I don’t know, it was an, I was smoking a lot of pot at the time and I was doing a PhD and it was a bit difficult to maintain kind of brain activity I suppose. Sort of, it’s not a very wise thing to be smoking cannabis when you’re also trying to work intellectually. So, so I just transferred it to smoking. And that was how it started.

So, and then it kind of, then you discover the whole world of smoking which doesn’t really exist so much anymore, but there was a whole kind of social aspect to it, meeting people outside having a fag and of course, in those days you would smoke in pubs and in cafes and so there was a whole kind of social ritual to do with smoking that was very pleasing and pleasurable.

What was pleasing about it?

It’s meeting people and sharing smoking. Sharing smoke, fags, sharing a lighter. Yeah.
People spoke about smoking being a ‘creeping’ habit, and some remembered promising themselves that they would quit if they ever became hooked. Some felt they were ‘hooked’ after smoking for the first few times: Sarah said that she could never remember being a social smoker and had always felt that she was addicted.
 

Mariam quickly felt more dependent on smoking than she wanted to be and remembers how she first smoked to “deal with everything”.

View full profile
Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
So what happened from then?

I think you get addicted when you finish that cigarette. You think, you know, when you bought that first pack, you’d never think that I’m going to buy second pack. And before you know, you’re already doing it, already it’s taken control over you. Because in the beginning you say, “I’ll never do this. I’ll never this.” And you’ve bought it and then something like this moving, something like this happen, and that’s it, you just looking for cigarette. Oh my God, I’m running out, especially if you’re running. Oh my God, I’m running out of cigarette, I can’t. You know, you’re running out to make sure you’ve got cigarettes. And before you know, you’re already like full time smoker. You, and you’re happy with it. You’re happy with it to just carry on and then, and when you’re unhappy, you just think, oh my God thank God I smoke. How would I deal with everything? Thank God I’ve got this cigarette and thank God I’ve learned it. How would I otherwise deal with other things, and you just, cigarette become your friend.
People spoke about the change in attitudes to smoking over the years. Some said that in their childhoods it was normal and acceptable for people to smoke in front of their children (also see ‘The role of other people in the decision to quit’).

​Last reviewed August 2018.
donate
Previous Page
Next Page