Editor's Choice

Part-time smokers

The Awl noted a WSJ article by Melinda Beck about "part-time smokers" -- "a growing group of intermittent and secret smokers who seem to smoke as much for psychological and emotional reasons as nicotine addiction." That's sort of weird, defensive way of phrasing it -- "psychological and emotional reasons". Why not put forward the possibility that people choose to smoke every so often because they like it? I haven't been the subject of any studies, but I am guessing that I have "psychological and emotional reasons" for everything I do voluntarily. Later Beck notes that "some intermittent smokers can go for days without a fix" -- the idea that smoking can be anything other than a drug addiction seems impossible for her to imagine. But we may now be reaching a point at which smoking can be regarded generally as something other than a habit. It might return to being seen as a pastime, a social activity.

This all could be rationalization, I suppose. I am one of these part-time smokers nowadays; generally I'll smoke when I am on vacation or our drinking. I used to smoke a half a pack or so a day when in my 20s, but then I quit altogether for about seven years. In that period, smoking bans and restrictions came into force that paradoxically made it easier for me to resume smoking without the danger of becoming a habitual smoker again. There were too many barriers; it's worth the trouble to smoke only when the rest of my routine is already disrupted. And there tends to be a social payoff: the built-in pauses and rhythms of smoking rituals help facilitate conversation.

The emergence of part-time smoking suggests how the social infrastructure can shape how we use things, how we conceive of their place in our lives. With our culture's obsession with personal responsibility and addiction, norms and mores tend to get short shrift when it comes to explaining behavior. Not that smoking isn't addictive, but the way we use cigarettes isn't simply a matter of how addicted we've become to them. And as beneficial as it is to quit smoking entirely, partaking every now and then in tobacco is probably not the worst social practice in the world, and it wouldn't seem to mandate the sort of zealotry on display in the article, which treats part-time smoking as some insidious disease rather than as a re-emergence of a small pleasure in proper perspective.

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