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.
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’.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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