Regular, Menthol, or Lights—a reflection on old school smoking

When I was in high school, it was common knowledge that there was a small corner store out by the beach that sold cigarettes without checking for ID. It was easy, you just had to know what you wanted, walk-in, ask for it and pay, with cash of course. They even provided you with a book of matches. How thoughtful of them. After months of bumming cigarettes at parties, or after school in the parking lot, my friend and I thought it was time we get our own pack. Having tasted different brands (Camel, Marlboro, Virginia Slims) and flavors: (menthol, regular, and light), she decided on Virginia Slims Menthols while I chose Marlboro Lights.

Hands slightly shaking, but voice confident, I placed my order with the man behind the counter, handed him my cash (shockingly received my change) and got the heck out of there as fast as I could.

Riding high on our adrenaline rush, my friend and I drove down to the beach and perched on the sea wall to smoke our very first cigarettes from these inaugural packs. I haven’t smoked in years, but there’s something about remembering these moments that is so visceral. The tinny taste of raw tobacco as the filter hits your lips. The sizzle as the light begins to burn the paper. The way the smoke first hits your lungs, inhaling, burning, feeling a little lightheaded, releasing the smoke into the air, watching the ash form on the edge of the little white stick. The ritual, the feeling of being slightly high, of feeling energized, of feeling like an adult, like you have control over something when the world around you is spiraling. All of this is what addiction is made of.

The ritual, the feeling of being slightly high, of feeling energized, of feeling like an adult, like you have control over something when the world around you is spiraling. All of this is what addiction is made of.

With my own pack, it was harder to stop at ‘just one’ when I was out with friends. I came home smelling like a mixture of stale smoke and Bath and Body Works Sun-Ripened Raspberry body mist. I wasn’t smoking every day, but at every social event I was definitely partaking in two, three, four cigarettes at a time. I didn’t feel great the next day. My throat was sore, my stomach hurt, and yet, I was still coming back to smoke more. In the moment, lighting up felt like a way to connect with my peers.

I’ve been figured out… because I smell like an ashtray

During this time in my life, I was living with my grandparents. My grandpa was in bed when I came home, and my grandma was usually about ready to turn in. She made sure I was in the door, waved from her bedroom door, blew me a kiss, and turned off the lights. She was definitely up in my business in other ways though, and started to notice the smell of smoke on my clothes. One night I returned home and she was waiting for me in the kitchen. I smelled like a raspberry-lined ashtray; absolutely gross. All I wanted to do was sneak in, blow her a kiss, and wash the vile smell off of me. But tonight she wasn’t going to let that happen.

The “conversation” went exactly how you would think it might. It wasn’t much of a conversation. “You smell like smoke.” “Don’t smoke, it’s bad for you.” “I don’t want you to get cancer and die.” “If I catch you smelling like smoke again, you’re going to be in big trouble. No more going out, no more driving, no more talking on the phone.” Ugh, she just didn’t get it. I knew all of those things. Obviously I knew smoking was bad for me! I didn’t want to get cancer! I little voice screamed at me every time I lit up and said, What are you doing? You’re going to die an early, horrible death if you smoke that.

That would have been a completely different conversation between the two of us, especially if she had been able to approach it from a place of calm, of curiosity.

I smoked in high school because it made me feel connected to people. I felt like a total loser in high school. I lived with my grandparents. I struggled with depression. I felt really lonely and left out of a lot of things. Smoking gave me a rush and made me feel more outgoing in social situations. It was a conversation starter. It even made me feel more edgy and cooler than I actually was. What if my grandma had asked me WHY I was smoking? What was going on in my life that was leading me down a path to do destructive things? That would have been a completely different conversation between the two of us, especially if she had been able to approach it from a place of calm, of curiosity.

What this means for me as a parent

I’m reflecting on my adolescence as I fold laundry for my daughter. She turns five next month. Though she’s far away from the stresses of high school, I’m certainly aware of what the future might hold for her. I smell the soft scent of dryer sheets and think to myself that I would have literally no clue if she came home from an evening of vaping. The odorless clouds are scentless, making it almost undetectable, meaning that if vaping is still a thing when she’s in high school we’re going to have to have a proactive discussion about the dangers of inhaling nicotine into your lungs before I even know she’s interested in or has picked up the habit.

So, what’s a parent to do these days? Yell, scream, get worked up? That worked great for all of us, right? I’d like to approach the situation differently when the time comes and am grateful that there are resources already available to help me approach this hard topic when the time is right.

Talk Vaping With Your Teen

My colleagues at Hopelab, All Mental Health, and the American Heart Association recently released Talk Vaping With Your Teen, resources that help parents have conversations about ending teen e-cigarette use. These research-backed tools help parents navigate the often difficult conversations that surround the teen vaping epidemic. The resources provide a framework for parents to have a calm, respectful conversation with their teen while providing accurate and straightforward information to help their teen quit. The resources are free and available in two formats: a one-month emailed course and a web app.

If you’re dealing with this as a parent right now, I encourage you to check out this amazing guide. And if you know someone who might be struggling with how to talk to their teen about vaping, please check it out and send it their way.

Together we can all learn how to communicate effectively with our teens about vaping and create a generation that knows the facts, feels supported, and will ultimately be healthier because of these efforts.

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