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Why Are Fashion’s Elite Making Deadly Smoking ‘Cool’ Again?

“I don’t smoke.”

Had model Kendall Jenner included that caption on a picture of herself sans cigarette, the words could have been very powerful. Instead, she chose those three little words to caption a recent Instagram of herself entirely naked, with a cigarette delicately tucked between two of her fingers. The post was liked more than three million times.

Kendall Jenner
“I don’t smoke.” (Photo: Kendall Jenner via Instagram)

Jenner’s friend, fellow model Bella Hadid, sent a similar message when this week she posted a close-up black-and-white photo of her face, eyes closed, lips pursed, as she dragged sultrily from a cigarette. The caption reads, “I quit.”

A post shared by Bella Hadid (@bellahadid) on Jul 25, 2017 at 5:32pm PDT

This is not the first time these women — who have a combined Instagram following of almost 100 million people — have used cigarettes as coy, sexy props. Posing in a see-through bra and underwear for a recent Love Magazine shoot, Jenner keeps a lit cigarette daintily in hand; for a recent shoot for the same magazine, Hadid squats, her legs spread open toward the camera, a cigarette pursed between her lips.

A post shared by Kendall (@kendalljenner) on Jul 4, 2017 at 7:00am PDT

Hadid and Jenner are certainly not the only contemporary starlets to market the image of a cigarette as a sexy accessory. Kylie Jenner posts pictures of herself smoking, as do Sofia Richie, Paris Jackson, and influencers and models such as Elsa Hosk and Slick Woods. And, of course, there was the controversy surrounding images which surfaced of many celebrity Met Gala guests smoking in the bathroom at the Metropolitan Museum this past May, the most retweeted of which was a Snapchat posted by Rita Ora showing Dakota Johnson lighting a cigarette. The caption read, “sex on legs.”

After a lull of cigarettes in fashion, why are they suddenly back? We are well aware of the deadly effects of the habit — tobacco kills 30 times more people than murder.

When it comes to fashion photography and cigarettes, they are almost uniformly used as props to indicate rebellion and sex appeal — a kind of lazy, candid glamour. Today’s use of cigarettes as a trendy prop is making them as coveted as Kate Moss did as a distressed, heroin-chic ’90s “it” girl. Cigarettes’ resurgence as a symbol of sex and rebellion makes little sense, given that we now know how uniformly dangerous they are. The added risk of mega-celebs like Jenner and Hadid sharing images of themselves smoking — even if their captions push back at the idea of these women as actual smokers — is that it glamorizes the act to an audience of millions. This is particularly dangerous considering that much of these women’s fan bases are girls and young women.

Robin Koval — CEO and president of Truth Initiative, the national public health organization that directs and funds the tobacco-free truth campaign — agrees. “Thanks to social media, smokers — including people who may not even identify as smokers, like Kendall Jenner — have inadvertently become some of Big Tobacco’s best marketers,” Koval tells Yahoo Style. “Every post, like, and share of a smoking-related image on social media is a free advertisement for Big Tobacco, helping to re-normalize and make smoking cool again.”

The link between fashion and smoking goes back nearly a century, bolstered by the fact that cigarettes are an appetite suppressant. In the 1920s, flappers smoked cigarettes to rub society’s nose in their liberation; in the 1940s, ’50 and ’60s, the most envied actresses smoked their way through their most famous roles — it’s not possible to think of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, after all, without picturing her delicately biting her extra-long cigarette holder. Likewise, in fashion spreads of the era, cigarettes denoted a certain sophistication and elegance, wisps of smoke curled out of the barely parted lips of women wearing the latest trends.

In the ’70s and ’80s, the tobacco industry shifted its focus to active product placement in film, Koval says. And in the ’90s and aughts, there was a push and pull — calls for the removal of cigarettes from fashion spreads, followed by designers and photographers putting them in shoots anyway. It’s similar to what’s happening now, except that now there’s also Instagram.

But why, exactly, is smoking so compelling for photographers and filmmakers, and now influencers? On film, smoke can tell a story; it can fill a screen; it can give background on a character by its presence. This character smokes; therefore he is a bad guy. This character smokes; therefore she is sultry. On Instagram, it seems to give these women a little bit of rebellion cred. But perhaps those staid stereotypes need an update?

Meanwhile, renowned fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh has photographed so many women smoking cigarettes that there is a collection of his photographs called Smoking Women. He is also largely to credit for the fashion spreads of the ’90s, which often featured women smoking. “I wanted to move away from the rather formal, quite perfectly styled woman who was very artificial,” he said, referring to fashion photography of the ’70s and ’80s. “I was more concerned about a more outspoken, adventurous woman in control of her life and not too concerned about her social status of emancipated by masculine protection,” he wrote on Instagram of his aesthetic.

Maggie O’Toole, a set designer who frequently works on fashion shoots, spoke to Yahoo Style about the allure, to a person setting up a photo shoot, of cigarettes. “It’s difficult to have someone do something other than pull off gloves with their teeth, or pull down their sunglasses, that looks sexy” other than smoking, she says. “You can only hold your face in your hands a few ways that don’t get totally weird.”

But, says Koval of the Truth Initiative, “We’re surprised that some of the most creative people in the world still rely on old, hackneyed stereotypes, like putting a cigarette in someone’s mouth or hand, when they want to show someone is cool or edgy.”

The current moment in high-fashion smoking can pinpoint its beginning to 2011, when Kate Moss smoked a cigarette as she walked down the catwalk at the fall 2011 Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear show. “Moss, waving a cigarette and smoking in every sense, was only the super-est of the supes on the polished black runway,” Vogue wrote at the time.

That same year, Yves Saint Lauren promoted “sophisticated” cigarettes with the brand’s name emblazoned across the packages. The aforementioned Love Magazine has also packed its pages — and its Instagram — with models smoking.

On the rise in fashion, cigarettes are also on the rise on the silver screen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a study that says smoking in movies shot up 72 percent between 2010 and 2016. The CDC also indicates that “there is a casual relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking among young persons,” and also causes them to believe that smoking is more popular than it really is. Considering the fact that 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. who are on the Internet use Instagram, the idea that casual images of smokers can inspire young people to light up can certainly be extended to the ’gram. According to Truth, 99 percent of smokers start before the age of 27.

Fashion is cyclical. Shoulders pads were out, and now they’re in. Bell bottoms were in, and now they’re out. Smoking seems to be on that same fashion merry-go-round, with the only difference being that while many see cigarettes packed with symbolism, they’re actually packed solely with health risks.

You can say Kendall Jenner holding a cigarette is merely an image of Kendall Jenner holding a cigarette; but the reality is these images promote a lifestyle — sexy, cool, nonchalant, and powerful. If what these women wear, eat, and promote sells, why would cigarettes be any different? Three million likes is an easy answer to that question.

Here’s the truth: 1,300 smokers die every single day. Isn’t it time for fashion to quit?

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