Smoke on the water

Feb 4, 2020 | Pulse

An opinion on which category is the biggest competition to cigarettes.

For some time in India, we have been hearing that smoking is on the decline with fewer youth taking up the habit.

Having looked at the category of cigarettes, one of the key findings has been that cigarette smoking creates tribes – a band of kindred souls who bond and connect over the light and smoke at the end of a stick. This need to create tribes is a basic and enduring human need. It makes one wonder, if people are turning away from smoking, what is filling that space for young people today?

When we dig deeper, we can see that social media and the internet have the same codes as cigarettes.

To start with, let us look at the idea of addiction. Adam Alter, in his book Irresistible, states that “In many respects, substance addictions and behavioural addictions are very similar…they activate the same brain regions….”. This implies that at a physiological level, both provide similar gratification. The likes that one gets or the comments that one receives online delivers a similar experience as puffing a cigarette.

The world has changed and cigarettes helped us create connection in an earlier era. A world without Facebook or Instagram, when fulfillment was gauged by the number of buddies one had as opposed to the number of followers on Instagram or the number of likes on Facebook. For digital natives, this tribesmanship has moved to the virtual world and endorsement by the tribes on the web is a bigger aspiration and a cause of higher anxiety.

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The other big role that cigarettes played was to offer companionship when one was bored. Human beings are terrified of boredom and most people prefer to be doing something rather than nothing. The supreme ability of social media to distract, and for long hours at that, is not a secret to anyone. One does not have time for boredom anymore……and this too, applies to cigarettes.

Both cigarettes and social media have ritualised consumption. We hear many people saying, I consume X first thing in the morning, after dinner, when I am watching TV etc. Again, the X could be filled in by both social media or cigarettes.

While decline in cigarette smoking is a positive shift in society from a health and addiction point of view, it is critical for us to observe the substitute that is surreptitiously creeping in. While incidence of cancer is not declining, anxiety and depression are rising up as new epidemics.

As societal structures shift, it is always important to note the activity that is happening on the fringe. What is creeping in when we are not watching, so that while we solve one thing, we don’t have an even larger monster lurking behind that catches us unawares. We need to look at both – the smoke on the water and the fire in the sky.

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