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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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