Anyone Have a Light?
Campus smoking culture: Do we do it despite — or because — we should know better?
I smoked my first cigarette when I was 17. The week before, I had been hired at a pseudo-hipster falafel and kabob restaurant, where I had instantly fallen in love with my punk, college-dropout coworker who took smoke breaks about every other hour. Naturally, I asked one of my friends to “teach” me how to smoke, so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself if my coworker ever asked me if I wanted a cigarette.
When I came to Dartmouth, one of the first things I noticed was that we are a tobacco-free campus. Huh? I had never heard of such a thing.
First the “ban” on hard alcohol, and now this: I started to think I had chosen the wrong school. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big smoker, never was and (probably, hopefully, fingers crossed) never will be. For me, it’s always been a social tool rather than an actual dependence. However, this doesn’t mean that my peers aren’t somewhat, kind of, maybe-just-a-little addicted.
I originally intended for this article to be an interview-style piece in which I talked to some friends and peers about their smoking habits. To my chagrin, each and every one of them echoed a resounding “No” when I approached them.
“My mom doesn’t know I smoke,” said one friend, who I have not seen go a full day without using some nicotine device.
“I don’t want my future employers to see the article when they inevitably google me,” commented another, as we were literally sharing a cigarette last weekend.
“Do you have to use my real name?” asked a friend of a friend. I’ve known she was a smoker before I ever met her, and I was almost positive she would agree to do the interview.
These are all perfectly valid points, but, c’mon guys — it’s not like we’re talking about meth.
The funny thing about smoking culture at Dartmouth is that (in my experience) the demographic of smokers comprises the people you most suspect, as well as those you’d think would never be caught dead with a cigarette.
The first people I encountered that smoked openly around campus were a group of Europeans I’ve maintained casual and close friendships with (they were all in the running for the interview portion of the article, and they all refused). However, this habit makes sense for them since cigarette and nicotine usage is far more normalized in Europe than in America.
On the flip side, during Green Key, I overheard two female athletes converse about who had the lighter and who had the pack of cigarettes as they strutted across campus to the main concert.
In my one year at Dartmouth, I’ve seen my fair share of anonymous students smoking on the porch of a frat house, as they stroll into Hanover or loiter outside of the 1902 Room — I even saw a guy this morning light up a cigarette as he was leaving the gym. You get the point.
This begs the question: Why are we so hesitant to talk about something that we are so eager to do as soon as someone opens a new pack of Marlboros on a late Friday evening?
Like many problems, I think this is a condition of our youth; we are constantly being pulled in so many directions. We do it in the moment, maybe to seem cool or take the edge off, but then are afraid to speak about it the next day and elevate our decisions into real life, where they have very real consequences.
American culture so vehemently detests smoking — and Dartmouth looks down upon it similarly. But like many things, we critique without a solution. Although smoking is technically prohibited on campus, it seems like this habit might be a symptom of broader Dartmouth culture, and thus requires a deeper fix.
It also doesn’t take a genius to recognize how smoking has been romanticized in alternative subcultures, planting roots that have yet to be disturbed in many artistic and intellectual circles. One side says smoking kills, the other says smoking is cool.
But who am I to moralize? I’m just like every other student here, rushing to meet deadlines, vying for my place in the social terrarium that is college, finding time for clubs and having the occasional cigarette.
One thing I do know is that if Dartmouth students are anything, they’re intense. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve locked myself in the Stacks midday on Wednesday or Friday for hours on end, just so I can get work done and have a guilt-free night of going out into the early hours of the morning. We know the negative impact that alcohol and nicotine can have on our bodies, but once we press “submit” on our assignments, we indulge nonetheless — a kind of nihilistic “screw you” to the establishment that demands our intellectual labor and criticizes our late-night decisions.
Work hard, play harder. This motto might as well be tattooed over most Dartmouth students’ hearts. It’s no wonder that a stress-fighting, albeit harmful, substance is still in widespread use over our campus.
Life moves pretty fast at Dartmouth College; I’m not the first to say it, and I certainly won’t be the last. When I look back on all the times I’ve scrambled to finish my homework or a club application, just to move on to the next thing — usually a disappointing night spent watching my guy friends play pong in some sticky basement — I feel a little silly. All this buildup, and for what? I’ve seen all my friends do the same thing, running out of steam in the name of “trying to do it all,” a desperate grasp at our youth even though half of us haven’t even hit twenty.
I think it’s funny how much we judge some habits, and not others. When shaming our peers, or even ourselves, for tobacco or alcohol consumption, we forget that even good things, like our ability to push ourselves, can be spoiled in excess. One cigarette won’t kill you, but too many might. But that’s true for a lot of things.
Correction appended (Sept. 28, 9:51 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the legal age for purchase of nicotine was 18. Since 2019, it has been 21. The article has been updated.