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Giving up smoking

The image of smoking and smoking in secret

Many smokers have at some point hidden the fact that they smoked. In the UK, since 2007, it has been illegal to sell cigarettes to young people aged under 18. There is no legal age limit for smoking cigarettes but young people often learned to smoke in secret, hiding their behaviour from parents or teachers. People also told us that they had needed to hide their smoking from bosses, life partners, parents, particular groups of friends even when they were adult, but they also wanted to smoke away from children.

During the last 25 years of the twentieth century smoking changed from being a widely acceptable activity to one that is limited to particular places, especially since the Smoking Ban in 2007. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s it was accepted for people to smoke at work, in college seminars, in cinemas, restaurants, cafes and bars - it seemed as if ‘everybody smoked’. Smoking in the UK is closely related to age and lower income– for example the General Lifestyle Survey for the Office of National Statistics in 2009 showed that smoking was nearly twice as common among adults in routine and manual occupation groups as in managerial and professional groups.

Smoking in secret when young.

When people talked about what it was like smoking when they were young they often described finding a space in the school grounds, such as behind a wall or the furthest edge of the football pitch, where they could smoke without being seen by teachers or other authority figures.
 

Before he was 16 Keith smoked down the football field, hiding from his Dad, the village policeman.

Before he was 16 Keith smoked down the football field, hiding from his Dad, the village policeman.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
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Can you remember having that, having that first cigarette?

Oh I can clearly yes. It was at the football field, and it used to be the thing. We would go to the football field after school and sports being a big part of my life interestingly, being a smoker, but most, again, I suppose memory fades with age, but most of those people, they were a wide range of people from my age at that time, ten, eleven years old to eighteen years old and after work and when they finished work and I’d finished school along with lots of others we used to go to the local field and have a massive kick around and somebody just offered me a cigarette and I took it. And I can’t remember which one it was, but I can remember smoking it, and I can remember smoking it by the hedge so I wouldn’t be seen [laughs].

So when you were hiding behind the hedge who were you hiding from?

My Father was the village policeman, so I was hiding from his well hiding from him most of all, I suppose. I’m not sure, I knew it was wrong to smoke before you were 16 and I suppose it added to the sense of daring and doing something, breaking the rules a little bit, which is always exciting isn’t it, yes. So I guess that’s what it was.

Other people saw me there smoking. Other people got into smoking in just the same way at my age, which doesn’t make it any better. But that was the way it was.
Chris and others had taken cigarettes from their parents. They had sometimes felt that their parents were being hypocritical if they smoked themselves but were upset when they discovered their child smoked. Much later, when they understood the nature of nicotine dependence, they sometimes realised why their parents had reacted badly. Jules’s Dad ‘lectured’ him about the dangers of smoking, whilst Tam’s Dad talked to her about the expense of a smoking habit.
 

After Tom’s Dad found out that he smoked the two of them sometimes smoked together but both hid their smoking from Tom’s mother.

After Tom’s Dad found out that he smoked the two of them sometimes smoked together but both hid their smoking from Tom’s mother.

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And there was a point at uni when [laughs], I’m just remembering this now, you used to get in packets of B&H, Benson and Hedges you used to get gratis points, I don’t think they do these any more. You used to get Focus Points in Embassy and Regal, and Gratis Points in B&H, and you saved them all up and then you could get something for it. And there was a little, you used to get a little catalogue with all the things you could get, this many points you’d get a set of shot glasses and what have you. So I started collecting these things. I smoked B&H mainly. And then Dad was down, Mum wasn’t down, Dad was down where I was at university and helping me pack everything up at the end of term and take it all home, and I had this big brown manila envelope with loads of these gratis points in them, and everyone else that I knew that smoked the same brand of cigarettes would give me theirs, ‘cause they knew I was collecting them.

So we were shifting all the stuff out of my room and Dad found this envelope [laughs] and I said, “Yeah, yeah, I just know loads of people that smoke, and they’re not collecting them for anything, so I asked if I could have them.” Which, even as I was saying it at the time sounded pretty lame. But then I think on the same on the same trip, I think it was the same the same visit, we went out for dinner and at this point, I kind of knew what my Dad was up to, and Dad obviously knew what I was up to with the smoking, and Mum, we assumed, either didn’t know or didn’t ac want to actually say anything. So we’re coming out of the restaurant and Dad sparks up a cigarette and sort of said, “Oh don’t tell your Mother.” And I more or less said, “Well I won’t tell her, if I can have one.” [Laughs]. And that was, yeah that was sort of like, then for a long time there was sort of me and my Dad both smoking illicitly without my Mum knowing which, or well, she probably did know. She probably either didn’t want to really think about it, or turned a blind eye to it or what I don’t…
 

Lisa’s Mum was “devastated” when she found out she smoked. Lisa later understood the “guilt and shame” of smoking by reading the Allen Carr book.

Lisa’s Mum was “devastated” when she found out she smoked. Lisa later understood the “guilt and shame” of smoking by reading the Allen Carr book.

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
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I can’t remember specific words but it was always understood that you shouldn’t start smoking and that they regretted it. Yeah. That they regretted it, but there was, I don’t know, they didn’t, they really didn’t want us to. It would have been devastating to them if we started and my mum was devastated when she found out that I’d started. And you kind of, and you feel guilty, but then you think, why am I feeling guilty because you smoked all my life? And you are a hypocrite you know, to do something and then tell your children not to, but that just shows how powerful the addiction is in your mind, because you still can’t stop, you can’t stop for your children, you can’t. You can only do it for yourself. But your children will really benefit if you do.

Can you remember when your Mum found out you smoked?

Yes. Oh. It was awful, and why did I feel so bad about it? When she’d been smoking all that time? Oh, see there’s a lot of negative feelings attached to smoking. There’s guilt, there’s shame, there’s just thinking that you’re rubbish because you can’t stop. But the book addresses all this. It addresses all these feelings and these conflicts that go around in your head and it explains what’s really happening. And you sort of think, oh no wonder I can’t stop. No wonder it’s so hard and it’s brilliant just to understand why it’s been such a struggle. Hm. And then it doesn’t have to be a struggle anymore once you’ve got the answers. It’s like being given the key to your prison cell and you know, you can’t get out, you just can’t get out and somebody just hands you the key and then you’re free and that’s it.
Laura remembers her parents asking her directly whether she smoked, which she answered truthfully. They were upset but thanked her for telling them. Anna says her mother wasn’t a ‘disciplinarian’; she made it clear that she felt Anna was doing something ‘stupid’ but also felt she couldn’t stop her. Hiding smoking from parents could be stressful: people found they were getting irritable on a family holiday if they had to go for long without a cigarette, or tried (usually in vain) to hide the smell on their breath with mints. Even when parents did know that their children smoked, it was sometimes only years later that they felt they could smoke in front of their mother or father. Sue was in her late 20s before she could have a pint of beer or a cigarette in front of her mother.
 

Miles felt ashamed about smoking in front of his mother and felt that he led a ‘dual life’.

Miles felt ashamed about smoking in front of his mother and felt that he led a ‘dual life’.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Male
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I wouldn’t, I never smoked in front of my mother, because my Mother even though she smoked she frowned upon her children smoking, as if you know, don’t do what I do, just do what I say sort of thing. So I never smoked in her presence. I do remember her sort of smelling my clothes and confronting me about it. And me denying that I’d ever smoked, but I think she, she soon realised that I was you know, then she confronted me a second time, and this time she found a packet of cigarettes in my jacket pocket and I remember feeling really quite ashamed that I was smoking. So there was all this slight dual life. You know, what happened down the pub and also what happened to in front of my Mother as well, and my Father as well. My Father never smoked a cigarette in his life. And he obviously frowned upon it as well. But…

You know, my sister smoked and also two other, my youngest brother and also my youngest sister also smoked as well, so I think it’s, I don’t know whether it may, certainly my wife talks about the fact that children can pick up some addiction to smoking from passive smoking now. I don’t whether it was because of my Mother’s habit, or may be just a cultural route which we were in during the 70s and 80s or whether it was something which I may have picked up over the years
Smoking in secret as an adult.

Having started to smoke in private, people often continued this secrecy into at least some areas of their adult lives. In recent years it has become more common for people not to smoke in front of children, both because of concerns about passive smoking and fears they would pass on a bad habit. Jules visited a friend and realised that his friend’s four-year-old son was imitating the way he smoked, so didn’t smoke in front of him again.

Those who had children many years ago, like Carol who had lived in South Africa, said that it had been normal to smoke in the house and around their children. A few people felt that it wasn’t acceptable for women to be seen smoking in the street or that it was ‘a cultural taboo’ for women to smoke.
 

Mariam felt lucky to be in the UK and able to smoke in public. She grew up in Kyrgyzstan where a woman would have had to be ‘brave’ to smoke.

Mariam felt lucky to be in the UK and able to smoke in public. She grew up in Kyrgyzstan where a woman would have had to be ‘brave’ to smoke.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
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I thought, I thought I’m lucky. I’m so lucky that I can smoke. I thought oh my God if I was back home, I wouldn’t be able to smoke because not many women smoke there. Because in the capital city the half of the population are Russian, half of their population are ethnic people. And ethnic girls, now probably these days everybody is advanced and they’re all right. But in my generation, not many girls of Kyrgyz ethnicity smoke. So I couldn’t really. I don’t think I was, or would be brave enough to smoke. And then I thought, oh my God, I’m so lucky that I live in this country and I can smoke and I can deal with anything. [small laugh] And that’s what I did.

And always at the back of my mind I knew that smoking was still bad for your health. So I was, I thought I was controlling it. Because, if I worked, for example, daytime I never smoked till I finished job. Till I pack up work. I smoke after 5 only. Or if it gets during the day… Some people at work didn’t even know that I smoked. Most people, even my children, most people didn’t really know that smoked, because I didn’t smoke that many. If I was doing nightshift then I could smoke 20 in one night. But daytime of course I was dealing with people and trying not to smoke too many. That was at the beginning but in the, in the end you just, it gets more and more and more, and then after that you don’t really care. You just smoke as many as you want [laughs]. Yes.
 

Rukmini thought that all the women in the Delhi office where she had worked smoked secretly in the toilets.

Rukmini thought that all the women in the Delhi office where she had worked smoked secretly in the toilets.

Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
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I do remember while I was in Delhi and working for an NGO my auto rickshaw would drop me at the gate and I used to give the guy, who used to work in the gate the chokidar there would go and buy my cigarettes for the day, so and I worked in an office where we could not openly smoke and the culture of the place was that everybody, women smoked in the toilet. And I found myself smoking in the toilet and I hated. When I realised this I was just like why am I doing this, you know, this is … So it did feel at one point, or a year before I quit, it felt like an addiction. It felt like there was pleasure, you know, and that’s why I was doing it. Because if it was about, if it was about public space why was I doing it in the toilet, so you know, I don’t know what the, what the classic definition of addiction is, but I do think those pleasures are associated with it and I started smoking in the toilets. It was a bit weird.

And did you sort of think about that at the time, or is it only now?

No, it’s only now when I think about it. You know, at that time, everybody all of the women in organisation smoked in the toilet, and you know, there was a secret stash of cigarettes in our drawers and people would pick a cigarette and not say you’re going for cigarette breaks, and then when you came out the toilet, you know, it was big AC offices so the toilets reeked of cigarettes and everybody else knew that you had gone and smoked a fag, but it was just something that you quietly did and didn’t do it in front of your bosses and you didn’t do it in front of anybody else, and that was not the reason why I’d started smoking. So if I had no problems with smoking in front of men on campus, why was I scared of smoking? you know, why did I smoke in the toilets, because it clearly wasn’t just a cultural thing, you know, I think it was more than that, because I was addicted to the pleasure, you know, and may be, I don’t know, maybe I just wanted to fit in with the other women who were smoking in the place, you know. And all of this is this whole image you know, you’re radical and you’re cool and you don’t fit into the defined norm, and hence you smoke. I don’t know. I don’t know what was going on at that point, but I did find myself smoking in the toilet. But then looking back that was a bit weird
 

Miles thought he had ‘double standards’ as he had found women who smoked unattractive.

Miles thought he had ‘double standards’ as he had found women who smoked unattractive.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Male
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From recollection it was mainly, it was mainly. I mean there were women who smoked. I think the biggest influence was my sort of male friends who were the biggest smokers. I mean, I think actually sort of frowned on women smoking I think, because it was sort of making smell of it, and in a way I preferred women who didn’t smoke. I think that’s what I found most attractive about [wife’s name], my sort of wife, that she didn’t smoke. So that was double standards I have to admit.

And I think maybe that’s ultimately, because I thought if I’m finding these women unattractive, then maybe they’re finding me unattractive as well. I think that was possibly one of the motivations especially when I was getting a bit more serious with [wife’s name]. So...
People talked about having seen smoking in films and on TV and promoted in billboard advertisements years ago. Smoking was an important part of people’s identity, and tended to be shared within social groups. With changes prompted by the ban on smoking in public places, attitudes have changed over the years.

Laura felt that it looks bad to see teenage girls smoking and Tam gave up smoking when she was expecting her first child – she didn’t want to be seen as a ‘pregnant mother who smoked’. Caroline carried on smoking whilst pregnant (her children are all adults now), but smoked in secret during this time. Indeed, various people thought they had managed to keep their smoking secret from work colleagues, parents, friends and even from partners. Val used to hide in the garden to have a cigarette and stick the ends in plant pots, whereas Jules quit with his partner and then started to have a few ‘sly’ cigarettes. People often knew that others disapproved of smoking.
 

Tom started to work in a sales team where he felt that his boss didn’t approve of people smoking at work, which helped him to cut down.

Tom started to work in a sales team where he felt that his boss didn’t approve of people smoking at work, which helped him to cut down.

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I was in a team where nobody smoked, so it would have been odd if I was the only one going out at fag breaks, and it was a new job, and you know, want to impress the boss and all the rest of it. So then I didn’t smoke at work, I’d smoke on the way to work and I’d smoke on the way home.

Did you think that smoking wouldn’t impress your boss?

I think because he wasn’t a smoker, and also because there was quite a kind of, it was a sales environment and it was quite a kind of I don’t know, well salesy work ethic, what do I mean by that? You come in early and you stay late and you know, and you work through your lunch time and all that sort of stuff. And I know he was, actually, no I’m wrong about there was nobody. There was, there was one guy who used to go out for cigarette breaks, and I knew that the boss didn’t like that, because there’d be sort of 15, 20 minutes a day where he’d just be away from his desk having a cigarette. So there was that going on, yeah, I’d forgotten about that. But I think I was, yeah, I was very eager to impress him, and he wasn’t a smoker and, I kind of got the impression, because of this other guy and various things, that he kind of didn’t really approve of people doing it at work. So I said, well okay, maybe this will help, maybe this is again like the clean break, my 30th birthday thing. If I don’t smoke at work in this job, then that will really help me to cut down.
 

People who know Laura now have no idea that she used to smoke. She thinks they’d be shocked to learn she is an ex-smoker.

People who know Laura now have no idea that she used to smoke. She thinks they’d be shocked to learn she is an ex-smoker.

Age at interview: 32
Sex: Female
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No one here in this village knows that I used to smoke. I would never, I don’t imagine I would meet a new person and reveal unless they somehow got round to the conversation. When I was a smoker I didn’t keep it a secret per se but I’m aware that it looks bad and it’s not exactly, it doesn’t show ambition or, do you know what I mean. It’s not, it’s not a good thing to be a smoker. So from the point of view of work I wanted to be ambitious, career driven and all of that and being a smoker doesn’t equal that same thing I don’t think, and that’s not my image at work. That’s not what I wanted to portray and it certainly isn’t now, in the terms of I’ve got two small children, we try and grow our veg and be healthy and all that sort of thing. I think if anyone in the village knew. I wouldn’t mind if they found out. It’s not top secret, but I don’t tell them. I think they’d be gob smacked. They’d be really shocked. It doesn’t seem like me. Even when I was younger, I remember occasionally I’d be talking to someone that I’d just met and get a cigarette out, and they’d be like, “Oh my God, do you smoke?” I don’t know why. I just didn’t seem to come across as a smoker. I don’t know why [laughs].
Also see ‘Parents, friends and first cigarettes’, ‘Smoking memories and experiences’ and ‘Changing culture, public health campaigns and the smoking ban’.

​Last reviewed August 2018.
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