Is Smoking Cool Again? The Data Indicates Maybe.

Cigarette sales are up across the board, even among Gen Z consumers, defying efforts to curb smoking among young people. 

Despite decades of public service announcements informing children of their dangers and strict bans on advertising, cigarette sales are up, even among younger generations in some cases, according to new data released by commerce data platform Attain.

Six different cigarette brands — American Spirit, Camel, Kool, L&M, Marlboro and Maverick — experienced significant increases in sales from April 2023 to April 2024 versus the same period a year prior, a trend that some attribute to cigarettes regaining the classic “cool” that once made them a staple of Americana iconography. In fact, total spend per customer in the last 12 months was $326, a 27% upswing when compared to the same period. 

“Smoking cigarettes, like playing guitar or driving a motorcycle, is something that is unkillably cool,” says Isaac Simpson, founder of WILL, a Los Angeles communications agency whose clients include Hestia, a cigarette brand popular among the hipster art scene crowd. “You’ll always look sexy doing it, no matter what.”

It’s hard to believe that cigarettes are making a comeback, especially with young consumers, considering the massive effort to raise public awareness about the health hazards they present. Millennials grew up inundated with in-school health lessons and after-school PSAs about the dangers of smoking. Many of these ad campaigns were executed by the Truth Initiative, a national public health campaign funded by billions of dollars from major tobacco companies, as part of a settlement agreement to the public health lawsuits they faced. By the time Gen Z came of age, the dangers of smoking became common knowledge.

But the numbers indicate that cigarettes are growing in popularity, with some brands even making inroads with Gen Z, a generation that typically abstains from vices relative to older consumers. Purchases for L&M cigarettes, for instance, more than doubled (119%) year-to-year among consumers ages 18 to 24, Attain data shows.

For Simpson, the cigarette resurgence is part political, part aesthetic. The demonization and over-regulation of cigarettes, long a symbol of rebellion, has likely made them “cooler.”

“The powers that be have massively overreached in their efforts to ban cigarettes on all levels, while simultaneously sponsoring alternatives like weed and mushrooms,” Simpson tells The Outcome. “Cigarettes are completely vilified in all public spaces. You have a terminally cool thing being supercharged by hypocritical overlords. Of course, they’ve never been cooler for young people seeking an edge.”

It also might not be a coincidence that L&M, Zoomers’ preferred cigarette brand, have regal, retro packaging. 

Simpson emphasized the popularity of cigarettes as a reaction to the growth of vaping, which doesn’t carry the same aesthetic cachet of lighting up a real square. “When vapes came out, they were cool briefly, particularly Juul,” adds Simpson. “But they quickly acquired a reputation for being trashy — like [certain] energy drinks … Someone who wants to ingest nicotine is left today with smoking or taking Zyns [a smokeless nicotine pouch], both of which have been established as the classy, bourgeois-coded methods of intake.”

Hestia, an independent cigarette brand, has built brand equity with young Bohemians by poking fun at these cultural trends. Its Instagram account tells consumers “GOD HATES VAPES” and posts old-timey anti-smoking PSAs featuring Superman.

Simpson’s breakdown almost perfectly adheres to cigarette sales data collected by Attain. The average cigarette smoker is a successful (more than $100,000 in annual income), white woman aged 35 or older, according to Attain’s analysis.

To be fair to the Zoomers, the cigarette industry is still dominated by older consumers, and it stands that total cigarette sales will fall as the U.S. population ages and there are fewer new smokers replacing old ones. But in the meantime, it appears that all the anti-smoking efforts of the past few decades still haven’t snuffed out tobacco.

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