In behind-the-scenes footage of Bella Hadid's new Chrome Hearts campaign, the model takes a drag of a cigarette with long, manicured fingers, before throwing a sultry glance at the camera with a look that seems to say: I'm sexy and I'm smoking.
But let's not mince words: we all know smoking cigarettes will kill you. It's toxic to you, your loved ones, and your pets. It's socially and fiscally irresponsible. And we haven't even started talking about the environmental impact of Big Tobacco. So why are Instagram starlets such as Hadid, Kylie Jenner, Nicola Peltz, Elsa Hosk, Dakota Johnson, and Sofia Richie—not to mention dozens of celebrities and models at the Met Gala— suddenly so cavalier about using cigarettes as props? Since when did it become cool again to show that you smoke?
In 2015, one of three high school seniors reported ever having smoked a cigarette, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. I mention this because stars like Jenner and Hadid, with 115 million Instagram followers between them, are bonafide icons of a generation of impressionable teenagers. What they eat, wear, say, sell, and Snapchat is of great significance to their young fans. And though Jenner has claimed she doesn't "really" smoke, she continues to puff on a cigarettes in many of the videos and imagery used for her merch venture, The Kylie Jenner Shop. She might not participate in the behavior, yet she's quite literally selling it.
These stars are using cigarettes as a prop, a device to seemingly make them look rebellious and more mature. I can't know exactly why they're so keen on sharing their smoking habits, because all the celebrities I reached out to declined to comment.
But what these influencers don't realize—or perhaps they just don't care?—is that they are peddling the idea that smoking is glamorous to an audience who cares deeply about image. This, of course, is nothing new.
Cigarettes have their time and place in art—when they're needed for authenticity, like in Mad Men, or to lend a subversive quality, like in vintage fashion editorials, when we just started to know better but turned a blind eye. But that's not what's happening here.
The cigarettes in these Instagram images are gratuitous to the point of confusing; a lazy attempt at being cool and oh-so-candid. And while it might seem harmless to some—It's just an image! They might not even really smoke!—it's the proliferation of this imagery that will slowly chip away at all our progress.
A 2015 study of 200 young adults proved that exposure to depictions of cigarette use on social media can "predict future smoking tendency, over and above the influence of TV and movie depictions of smoking." And while smoking has declined among adolescents, the rates are still high. In 2015, 4.6 million middle and high school students labeled themselves current tobacco users, and e-cigarette usage is spiking among middle school students.
When I asked my fellow editors how they felt about seeing cigarettes in fashion editorials, I was met with a mixed response. Everyone agreed that smoking is destructive (obviously), and that it's particularly bad that these starlets are apathetically projecting to the world that smoking is a habit of the well-connected and cool. But some also insisted cigarettes can have an appropriate use in certain editorials; that the small white stick somehow tells a story that empty fingers simply cannot.
"There is an inherent sex appeal in seeing someone smoking in a photograph. It's a way of saying—without actually saying it—that it's good to be a little bad," says travel and weddings editor Carrie Goldberg. "That slim curl of smoke carries your eye up or along the frame of a photo—a subtle yet stunning component of any photo's composition." It's a mistake to remove them completely from the conversation, she says, considering they are part of some of the best photographs of all time. But the true test lies in whether the image still works without the need for smoking. "Cigarettes, unfortunately, have a cemented role in art and fashion–but we now have more of a responsibility to exercise restraint in deciding how and when to use them as styling props," she explains.
I consulted street-style photographer Scott Schuman, better known by The Sartorialist, for his own opinion on smoking in candid and editorial images. As arguably one of the most famous street-style photographers in the world, much of Schuman's portfolio captures women mid-puff.
"The reality is that in Europe, you can only smoke when you're outside. And I shoot mainly outside. They used to be able to smoke in the office but now they have to go outside and smoke," he says. "For me, it's not really something that's an advantage in the shot." That's because the photographer has seen his fair share of nasty comments written on his Instagram page for posting images of smokers, but he says he's simply in the business of capturing a moment.
"I don't think taking pictures of it glamorizes it any more than anything else. I am not a fan of smoking, I don't think it a good thing, obviously—my brother had to have his voice box removed," Schuman explains. But to say these images are the catalyst that caused people to start smoking is just a flimsy excuse, he adds: "The person who started smoking after seeing these images was going to do it anyway. I just never gave into any of that stuff. I never let social peer pressure be an excuse for me."
Whether it's a photo of smoke billowing out of a young woman's mouth or a shot of someone slinking fur over their shoulder, Schuman purposefully keeps every passionate, hateful, and nasty comment on his page. "People, I think, feel powerless, but when they speak up they can make a change. If you want to see people not smoking, if those stars start to see their fans leaving because of what they're posting, then they would stop."
Much of that is true in theory, but this younger generation stands hard for their social media idols—they don't care much for the statistics, like that nearly 480,000 people die from smoking every year in this country, and that includes deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke. On most of the Instagram images embedded into this story, the comments are shockingly positive. "Go girl," "Yasssssss slayage," "You smoking sex bomb," and other positive affirmations are scattered throughout the public comment sections.
It's true that the overall number of tobacco users has decreased significantly over the last few decades—and that's a great thing. It shows that as a country, we're wising up. We now care about things like kale and green juice and we all know that cigarettes are poisonous. So it's hard not to feel baffled when you think of the significant progress we've made, only to have these powerhouses of social influence tear it all down.
I must be forthcoming about how infuriating I find these images personally. I lost a grandmother to lung cancer and a grandfather to a tobacco-related cancer—and I know I'm not alone in that loss. I'm also not naive enough to think that celebrities and models have collectively stopped smoking. Of course they still smoke—you can catch them at fashion week and in paparazzi shots puffing away like it's 1985. But most of them are respectful enough to keep the habit off social media. It's something they do between takes, away from the prying eyes of the public.
Do these stars realize the irresponsibility of wielding one's influence to normalize smoking for their teenage fans? After all, national surveys have reported that almost 90 percent of adults who smoke became regular users during adolescence or earlier. A single Instagram image of a cigarette—reaching hundreds of millions of young adults—is, after all, a more effective marketing tool than anything Big Tobacco could legally publish.
I don't judge these women for smoking; everyone has the right to make their own decisions, even ones that could kill you. But the problem with smoking is that it's also slowly killing those around you. It's addictive in a way other substances and destructive behaviors are not. When I look at the women in these images, I don't see behavior worth emulating. I see cancer, disease, and frankly, stupidity.