• May 22, 2024

Star Power

 Star Power

Image: mitrija

Image: mitrija

When smoking gets better press than vaping

By Cheryl K. Olson

Celebrity news sites have reported sightings of Sasha Obama, the daughter of the former president, smoking cigarettes. There she is, puffing with friends outside a glamourous Los Angeles party. And here, exhaling while exiting a luxury wellness spa. She makes no apparent attempt to evade the photographers.

No longer taboo, cigarettes are increasingly seen dangling from the lips of celebrities, on the streets and on-screen. Once-ubiquitous mentions of vaping as trendy and cool have gone up in smoke. Cigarettes, by contrast, appear to be inching back toward social acceptability. Worse, this may be coming at the expense of the vastly less harmful alternative nicotine product.

Let’s review some recent examples of this shift in celebrity cigarette media coverage and perceptions and some potential implications for normal humans.

‘Cigfluencers’

A recent New York Times article, “A Viral Cigarette Brand? In 2023?,” details, and arguably promotes, efforts to get a small cigarette brand called Hestia into the mouths of influential New Yorkers. It mentions that the product is illegal to sell at retail in that state and legal in only four others. The goal of this campaign, it says, is to turn the brand “into a kind of cult status object for those still willing to risk the many dangers of smoking.” 

Billboards selling cigarette brands may be illegal, but “cigfluencing” by bloggers and podcasters with names like Meg Superstar Princess appears to be A-OK. So is handing out Hestias at exclusive events. The receding cool of vaping seems to help fuel the promotion of Hestias as naughty-chic.

“Paradoxically, a boom in vaping over the last few years has made burning an actual paper-wrapped, plant-and-chemical-filled cigarette practically taboo,” says the New York Times article. “And for that reason, among people like Meg Superstar Princess, it’s making a comeback. (‘God Hates Vapes,’ a recent post on the Hestia Instagram account, proclaimed.)”

‘She Looks Fabulous’

Twenty years ago, a clutch of studies found that seeing smoking in movies encouraged teens to initiate cigarette use. Smoking in films and television declined but never faded completely. Recently, depictions of smoking are reportedly surging on youth-oriented media.

Viewers noted and even mocked chain smoking by the protagonist, played by Lily-Rose Depp, of a new HBO series. “You would think The Idol was a cigarette commercial the way Jocelyn [Depp] couldn’t do anything without smoking,” one watcher tweeted on social media platform X. 

Depp, aged 24, apparently also smokes in real life. She left the Cannes premiere of The Idol in vintage Chanel, accessorized with cat-eye sunglasses and a lit cigarette.

“The smoking is a conscious decision. She looks fabulous, unfortunately,” a nightlife reporter told The Guardian newspaper. The article, titled “Celebrities are Smoking Again,” states that “many Gen Z stars are holding old Hollywood’s once beloved props,” eschewing green juices and yoga mats. A paparazzo states that for years, stars asked him to delete snaps showing them smoking. No longer. 

Raising the issue of e-cigarette use, the article says it “may lack the star power of cigarettes.” The nightlife reporter is quoted as saying, “I’m not sure it ever looked cool to vape, but it definitely doesn’t look cool now” and that culturally, “vaping has entered its death phase.”

The Guardian separately reported on an August 2023 New York THNK1994 pop-up museum exhibit, which called itself The Museum of Smoking. It was described as “a tongue-in-cheek love letter to a terrible, but admittedly captivating, habit.” 

Covering “iconic moments in smoking history,” the exhibit featured celebrity photos and memorabilia from the 1990s onward. There were also video installations, original art and gift shop “merch” inspired by them. An example of merch: The Mary Kate and Ash Tray, bearing a cartoon of puffing Olsen twins.

The glib tone of the exhibit was exemplified by this program note: “Do not start smoking. Do not start vaping either. But if it’s too late and you’re already here, then welcome, isn’t it gorgeous?”

Oddly, this trend of romanticizing cigarettes in media is being used to raise further concerns about vaping. A July article in Bustle quotes Truth Initiative CEO Robin Koval on this point. Since youth smoking rates are down, the logic goes, smoking in media becomes a tobacco industry ploy to hook replacement “smokers” on e-cigarettes.

Koval mentions a study by the Truth Initiative linking high exposure to tobacco imagery in television shows to increased youth initiation of vaping. Over 99 percent of the 444 “tobacco incidents” identified in their sample of programs featured combustible cigarettes. Just nine featured vaping, and eight of those came from a single series (Fuller House).

It’s notable that the study connected television viewing in 2018 to increased vaping in 2019, the year youth e-cigarette use peaked before declining. No significant association was found between TV tobacco imagery exposure and starting to smoke cigarettes.

News Coverage Imbalance

Of course, there’s more to press coverage than celebrity news. Another thing making vaping uncool is the steady drip of media reports on purported health risks of e-cigarettes. A search for the term “cigarette” in Google News for August and September brings up many more stories about the dangers of e-cigarettes than on the risks of smoking. This sample of intimidating headlines is typical:

  • “Vapour from Vapes May Paralyse our Immune Cells”;
  • “Vape Tongue: E-Cigs Lead to People Losing Sense of Taste”;
  • “E-Cigarettes Reduce Testicle Size and Sperm Count—New Study”;
  • “Possible Link Between E-Cigarette Use and Increased Risk of Stroke”;
  • “Vaping Found To Be the Biggest Risk Factor for Teenage Tobacco Smoking.”

Cigarette dangers are literally old news; relatively few new studies are generated and covered. Most of these vaping stories come from press releases that summarize and promote academic research. News stories based on press releases are a primary way the general public learns about advances in science and medicine. Such stories unfortunately tend to amplify the errors or weaknesses of their original sources. High risk of bias and methodological issues in vaping research have been noted in recent expert reviews.

Setting aside issues with particular studies and the larger field … the sheer quantity of negative press about vaping versus smoking gives the impression that e-cigarettes are at least as dangerous, and perhaps more so, than cigarettes. And research shows that’s exactly what the public has come to believe.

Far From the Influencers

Most of us are not trendy urban influencers and do not hang out with them. How might these views trickle down to local media and affect everyday people?

Skip Murray, a tobacco harm reduction specialist at the Minnesota Smoke Free Alliance, works in a tourist-dependent area of the Midwestern U.S. ringed by scenic lakes. I asked her how smoking and vaping are viewed today in her community. 

While driving to work, “I never hear anything on the radio about smoking,” Murray says, “just about vaping and how it’s bad. In the ads and in comments that the DJs make when they do their morning talk thing.”

As she parks her car and watches people walking by, she sees more smoking than vaping. “And it makes me really sad,” she adds.

Murray’s office doorway has a small, protected alcove and is located next to a bar. “Every morning when I come to my office, the first thing I do is sweep up the cigarette butts outside my door, left by the bar patrons getting out of the wind while they have a smoke,” she says.

Murray has observed increased negative media coverage of pollution caused by vaping. Despite this, she has yet to sweep up any e-cigarette-related debris: “Not a Juul pod, a coil or a used disposable vape.”

A Silver Lining?

If vaping is no longer cool and edgy, could there be a silver(-haired) lining? Perhaps a bit of boring could save lives. I’m thinking of retirement-age folks who smoked and took part in a recent qualitative study I led. We asked what had attracted them to a simple “cigalike” vape.

A woman in her 70s told us, “I think those ones that are big and put out clouds of smoke are ridiculous.” A man in his 60s said, “I smoked cigarettes a long time. This thing looked like a cigarette, so voila! I got them and stayed with them.”

Older people trialing and switching to vapes would be a huge win for public health. Leave the cigarettes to the influencers!

But seriously, let’s hope for a quick end to this dangerous trend.

I leave you with this much more entertaining recent headline from The Onion: “Nation’s Older Sister’s Friends Announce Plan to Split Single Cigarette Among 9 of Them.”