Mamaroneck High School, approximately 1,200 students, is located in Westchester County, New York. Similar to other public schools in New York, Mamaroneck has a group of students who regularly smoke. One of these is a sophomore girl. She and I used to be extremely close friends until around 3rd grade, when we both moved to different schools and lost touch. She eventually became friends with people who introduced her to smoking, and somewhere in between, her parents went through a difficult divorce. She used to be athletic, tall, fit, a lovely, upbeat, outdoorsy person, but I realize that she has changed. In an admirably candid interview, she explained to me her smoking addiction, how that has affected her life, and also gave an interesting insight into what it meant to be a teen smoker.
My friend told me that she smokes any chance she can get (while trying to avoid cutting class) at C Wall, the infamous wall at Mamaroneck High School host to the group of 15 or so smokers. These students range from 9th to 12th grade, and most often meet after school in this location to congregate, and especially, to smoke.
About 5 years ago, C Wall was 4 yards farther forward from where it is currently (seen in this picture). School authorities decided to tear down C Wall, fill in the space where it initially was with grass and a sidewalk, and then build a new wall to the school 4 yards in. This was all in an attempt to dissuade the smoking that was occurring there, and done in a symbolic way like tearing down the Berlin wall. Unfortunately, it was a failure, for smokers still loiter the grounds to this day, and litter them too.
Here, you can see cigarettes polluting the grounds in front of C Wall. Technically, it's illegal to smoke on school grounds, so whenever a staff member approaches the smokers, they step onto the curb, for the street isn't considered school grounds. My friend informed me that the school tried to threaten them by placing a video camera on the wall, but it is rumored that it is only the case, and that the camera isn't there, so the smokers go up to it occasionally and stick their middle fingers at it to mock the authorities.
These are only a few cigarettes I managed to pick up within 3 minutes. Many more were strewn on the grass.
Here is the interview with my friend, divided categorically:
Context to Smoking History:
1) Do you smoke?
Yes I do smoke.
2) What do you smoke?
I smoke Marlboro 27's but for the first 2 years I smoked Marlboro reds.
3) When did you start smoking?
I started smoking at the end of seventh grade (I know I was young).
6) How do you obtain cigarettes?
I know a lot of people that are over 18, and a lot of stores let minors pass.
Influence of Friends, Society, & Personal Life on Decisions:
4) Does smoking have a relation to drinking and/or partying for you?
No not at all actually. Cigarettes were a thing I started doing way before I started anything else.
5) Do you and/or do most people who smoke do these things also (party/ drink alcohol)?
Yeah I would honestly say I know a lot of people who take partying and cigarettes hand in hand, but that's not how I feel. Cigarettes for me always stayed separate because I'm addicted to cigarettes in a way that I never will be with alcohol or weed or anything. I rely on cigarettes and I feel like I need them (even though I know I don’t) and with other stuff I don't have a need for it the same way.
7) Do you think smoking has allowed you to be apart of an exclusive group of friends/ become more popular?
No, I think a lot of people avoid smokers and make them their own separate group, but I don't think the smokers put that upon themselves. I know for years I was really disliked because I was known as a bad kid, and i never thought it was fair that someone could judge me based on something other than my personality. Most of the people that didn't like me never even talked to me, and now that we're in high school and older I've noticed a lot of people stopped excluding the smokers because they see that smoking doesn't affect who we are as people.
21) Have events in your life affected your decision to smoke?
No not really. I never thought I would be a smoker, I never expected to like the first pull or want more after that. I always knew how horrible they were for you and I used to even hold my breath when I walked passed people smoking on the street when I was young.
Teen Smoker Identity & Opinion on Smoking:
8) Do you identify as smoker, or is it not a significant part of your life?
Yeah, I would say I identify as a smoker. And I only say that because I'm addicted, and they are a part of my daily life and they do affect me if I don't have them.
9) How do you feel about smoking? Do you think it's particularly good or bad?
Horrible, one of the worst things I've ever done to myself.
10) Do you regret smoking or are you glad you started?
I regret it a lot, I feel it in my whole body every day and it's honestly scary thinking about what my lungs look like or how much healthier I'd be if I didn't smoke.
11) Do you think you have a unique case, or are you similar to most other teen smokers? If you believe you are unique, why so?
Yes, I do think I have a unique case. Many young smokers start smoking because they think it's cool, or because they want to "fit in." I started smoking because I was sad. I was very, very sad for a long time, and I knew that smoking was bad for you so that's why I started. I took every chance I could to take a risk. I am way beyond that now, I don't take nearly as many risks as I did in the past, but now I'm addicted and quitting is really hard for me.
Physical, Emotional, & Mental Effect of Smoking:
12) Has smoking given you pleasure/ made you feel better?
Short term - yes, it relieves my anxiety but at the same it can make it worse if I'm craving a cigarette and I can't get one. Long term - no, not at all. Cigarettes really started hitting my body around a year after I started smoking, and I realized it was harder for me to run and walk up stairs. Even just walking started to make my heart race.
13) Have you ever tried to quit? If so, we're you successful? If not, why?
Yeah, I've tried to quit a few times. I was in the hospital for ten days last year (it's a long story) and while I was there they put me on the patch. It really didn't help, my cravings were really bad and it was hard for me to sit still or fall asleep, and I had a lot of dreams there where I was smoking a cigarette and when I would wake up I would think I was holding one, and when I went to take a drag it wasn't there. Also, my sister bought me two different kinds of nicotine gum, but neither worked. The last thing I’ve tried were vapes. I've had five or six in the past year, but all of them have failed me. They just don't satisfy me the same way that cigarettes do.
14) Do you think you're addicted or do you feel as though you're in control of your habits?
Addicted, if I could control it I wouldn't be smoking.
23) Do you think you will stop smoking in the future?
Definitely, hopefully soon.
22) Does smoking affect other parts of your life, including school and family?
It doesn't affect school that much since we have open campus, unless I'm craving a cigarette in class and i can't leave for one, but that doesn't usually happen. Sometimes when I'm with my cousins or grandparents it's hard because they don't know i smoke, so i can't leave. But typically no, it doesn't affect my life minus my health.
Smoking Identity In Comparison to Friends and Society:
15) Do your parents know you smoke? If so, how do they feel about it?
Yes, I used to hide it from them but after the hospital I told them everything. They understand its kind of beyond their control, they're both former smokers so they've been through this, but they don't support it and they wish I would stop.
16) Do you try to hide the fact that you smoke?
I used to hide it, but I feel it's just a part of me and no I'm not proud of it but if people judge me based on just that then I feel that's their loss.
17) Are you only comfortable smoking with your friends?
No, I don't think about who I'm smoking with, I just think about smoking.
18) Can you describe the social aspects of your group of friends and how smoking fits in to that?
A lot of my friends do smoke, but I'm friends with many people who don't. I was the first one in my friend group to start smoking, and one of my best friends who's totally anti cigarettes now actually gave me my first cigarette.
Teen Smoking Culture:
19) Do you think the culture of teen smokers in Larchmont/ Mamaroneck is different than other teen smokers?
Not necessarily, I guess I don't really know much about other towns.
20) In the culture that you live in, do you think smoking is socially acceptable? How does society react to smoking?
Again, I think many people judge smokers too quickly. But a majority looks at smoking as unhealthy and as a really bad habit.
24) How do teen smoking advertisements affect you? Do they make you feel guilty or do you feel as though they portray smoking incorrectly, and that it's not such a bad thing? Please explain
Sometimes they make me feel bad, but not in a guilty way just more in a "what am I doing to myself" kind of way. I think the commercials and advertisements portray cigarettes accurately, and I think they're right by trying to scare kids into not smoking because honestly cigarettes are a scary thing.
Essentially, my friend acknowledged her addiction through the interview, and her struggles in coping with it. She has definitely not taken as drastic measures as killing herself, but she did say that she started smoking because she was depressed and she wanted to "take as many risks as possible," or hurt her body purposefully. She claimed that events in her life haven't instigated her smoking, which leaves the question of the cause of her depression unknown. I do know, however, the difficulties and perhaps bottled up emotions invoked by her parents' divorce. For much of her adolescence, she had to move back and forth between households, and before the divorce she had to deal with a wounded, but not yet broken family. On one hand, she entirely regrets smoking, and hates herself for doing it, but on another, she knows that what was done cannot be undone, and that people who judge her for being herself don't deserve her friendship. On this note, there were many contradictions in her answers. She said that she identifies as a smoker, because although there's a negative connotation to addiction, it's still such an intimate part of her. But, when she talked about how society reacted to her, she said that more people became friendly and opened up to her and the other smokers in high school when they realized that smoking doesn't define a person. This made me think that she molded to different personalities when she was around different people, but she said that she's not that calculated of a person; when she's smoking (with the smoking group) she doesn't think about who is around her, but only about smoking, and then in the rest of her life, she just lives and goes with the flow. And, this is where I find her now: much happier and brighter than the dark part of her life when she started smoking. Now, she only needs smoking because she is addicted to it, not to satisfy her depression and sadness. Many people have asked me if this project has rekindled our friendship, and i've thought deeply about it. I don't think we will necessarily become much closer, just because we're still very different people with different interests. However, I did become a lot more sympathetic instead of judgmental after having this really personal and intimate interview with her. Now, we talk occasionally; after the interview I reached out to her to thank her for being do honest and open, and to let her know that I hope things get better. She replied saying it was no problem, because she's way passed where she was before and is a lot better now. A couple of days ago, she even asked me how my family and everything was doing, because she told her mom about my project, and they were reminiscing about the days we used to have interminable play dates and have an almost sister-like bond.
My friend's story doesn't have the happiest of endings; she is still addicted to smoking, and still faces those hardships every day. But, her story is one of the few of teen smokers that was recorded (by this I mean in an unbiased and unintrusive way), and also so candidly told, and in this way provides a really important and impactful view of the culture teen smoking.