Smoke signals

by Rob Horning

1 November 2006


Earlier at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen wondered why more people seem to be smoking in New York City then in Northern Virginia:

1. Social networkers head to Manhattan, and social networkers smoke.
2. In Manhattan it is more important to signal you are cool.
3. Air pollution is higher, so the marginal health cost of smoking is less.
4. New York is colder, and that makes cigarettes more enjoyable.
5. The “artsy” variable is doing most of the work; of course this is related to #1 and #2.
6. NYC life is more stressful, and smoking calms some of these people down.
7. Many of them are poseurs, and these smokers don’t have such valuable human capital.

Cowen claims to lean toward #2, which makes sense; being cool is more significant when you are amidst a greater concentration of strangers to whom you must signal your importance, strangers who themselves are likely to be ambitious and judgmental by virtue of being in New York City in the first place. All this ambition makes cool a currency; it has value when you are among people who treasure it; cool is not so valuable when you are in Perkasie or Moorestown. In New York, you feel the pressure to leave an impression at a glance almost every minute you are in public (which is far more frequent, with most transportation being public), and perhaps some conclude that smoking is a means to do this, especially considering all the attractiveness and sex appeal that advertising has labored to attach to smoking. The grammar of smoking gestures immediate cast a person into a familar role; these gestures—the composure of a person who enacts the ritual of having mastered fire—are legible to everyone. But I wonder if the cool of smoking hasn’t been diminshed recently by the inconvenience now associated with it via indoor smoking bans. Cool and convenience, both pillars of consumerist ideology, are closely associated; smoking may require too much effort to come across as casually cool, yet it has no aura of connoisseurship to make its difficulty valuable.

A perceptive commenter adds:

(8) Smoking allows people to take breaks in offices without signalling shirking. There is greater fear of shirking and supposition of shirking in New York for cultural reasons.
(9) Because New York is denser and higher volume the perception of number of smokers is inflated. This both effects your measurement, but it also encourages more smoking on the margin.

These were two notions that occurred to me too when I first read this. The indoor smoking ban creates a opportunity for this kind of break excuse, and then the bunch of smokers milling in front of skyscraper office buildings creates the illusion of Parisian levels of smoke exhalation. Ultimately I think smoking organizes time usefully for smokers and provides an excuse for idle, open sociability while also generating a rhythm that makes such communication flow more naturally. It creates a quotidian reward system to augment our brain’s failing one; I think in this way it complements stress and seems to relieve it. But all it does is set little meaningless goals in the face of stress having wiped out our ability to see our way through to more meaningful ones or having destroyed our natural, hormonal reward system.

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