There are few legal vices that elicit such public, unsolicited condemnation of its users as cigarettes. Sure, smoking kills — so do many other things, but the billions of dollars spent trying to get low-income people hooked on a substance that will inevitably give them cancer, despite being available at any corner store, gives the sentiment a bit more of a jab. What’s confusing, though, is that we continue to vilify smokers as much as we do the tobacco industry. To openly and honestly enjoy smoking cigarettes is practically taboo, although a small but lively internet subculture of cigarette reviewers persists regardless.
On TikTok, @NikkiSmokers posts clips testing out rare or difficult-to-find cigarettes, as well as explainers of tobacco industry history and studies about the dangers of smoking. It’s an unusual balance — she is both “promoting” the act of smoking, while using the familiar anti-smoking discourse. Her most popular video, posted in early December, is an unboxing of Virginia Slim Superslims, with 55,000 views. She doesn’t actually light a cigarette in the unboxing, instead highlighting the unusually shaped box and comparing the thinness of Superslims (potentially the thinnest cigarette on the market) to traditional Virginia Slims and average cigarettes. In the caption, she posted a disclaimer: “*this video is for education purposes and to spread awareness.*”
While most of the comments are from people who remember aunts and grandmas who used to smoke Superslims, negative comments appear, as well. “Stop smoking, kid. Your face will thank you later,” one user wrote. “I didn’t realize people still smoked. It’d be cuter if it was filled with some bud,” wrote another.
Were any of these people to watch @NikkiSmokers’ other TikToks, though, they’d realize she’s both critical of and knowledgeable about the harms of cigarettes, too. The day after posting her Superslims review, she posted TikToks about how cigarette filters haven’t been updated since the 1950s, and how people with ADHD like herself are 40 percent more likely to be addicted to smoking. As her TikTok bio mentions, she’s also far from the last cigarette smoker out there, with 34.1 million adult cigarette smokers in the U.S. and over a billion adult smokers globally.
She’s not the only cigarette reviewer on the internet either. NickTheSmoker on YouTube has run a popular review channel for the last five years, gathering 175,000 subscribers. Though most would assume that someone who has uploaded around one cigarette review video per week for five years is probably knowledgeable about the health risks of smoking, his videos continue to receive numerous comments and jokes about lung cancer. Still, it’s not entirely unwarranted: In 2016, YouTube cigarette reviewer RJTheSmoker died of lung cancer, continuing to post videos about tobacco up until his death.
But the treatment cigarette reviewers receive is often far more condemning than that of people who review other intoxicating or harmful substances, whether they be fast food, alcohol or marijuana. While it’s assumed that most people are conscious of the ills of other vices, or are at least capable of making their own decision to consume them regardless, cigarette smokers are reviled. It’s hard not to see this as a socioeconomic value judgement — according to the CDC, cigarette smoking remains highest among people who live below the poverty level, people with disabilities, the uninsured and those who didn’t complete higher education. In many ways, it seems as though people are so eager to remind smokers of the dangers of their habit because they falsely believe smokers aren’t intelligent enough or disciplined enough to acknowledge those dangers themselves.
Yes, smoking kills. But those who choose to indulge in cigarettes are entitled to their vices so long as they don’t harm others, just as anyone else is. Despite the negative comments, they’re also entitled to share their indulgence with fellow smokers online, too.