Detailed descriptions of the act of smoking
May 14, 2007 3:38 PM   Subscribe

How does one smoke?

I am looking for detailed, sensory descriptions of the act of smoking. What does it feel like when you inhale smoke, when you feel your lungs expanding, when you exhale, etc. Please, describe the act to me!

Why? I'm writing a short story, and in a fairly important scene, one character teaches another to smoke. The most obvious solution would be for me to smoke a cigarette myself, but I'd like to get some input from actual smokers. I don't want to make myself look like some kind of smoking-novice dork!
posted by billybunny to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

Tobacco? or some other material?
posted by Megafly at 3:46 PM on May 14, 2007

I was gonna say the same. It depends on what one smokes.
posted by micayetoca at 3:54 PM on May 14, 2007

In more rebellious times I tried to pick up smoking. Fortunately, it only lasted a month since I was too much of a miser to buy another pack.

At first I didn't even inhale, just sucked some smoke in and held it in my mouth then blew it out. My friend rolled her eyes and told me to stop wasting it, just get it in my lungs already. The hardest part was to get over the psychological sense of breathing something that wasn't air - a little like breathing underwater. It tasted terrible, like a bunch of household chemicals (which you could argue that it is). I remember it was very dry and burned my throat. It was pointless to try to stifle a coughing fit.

Then my headache went away. I didn't even know I had one. It was very relaxing, clarifying.
posted by idiotfactory at 3:55 PM on May 14, 2007

Tobacco. Cigarettes. Probably should have clarified that.
posted by billybunny at 4:07 PM on May 14, 2007

OK, here's how to smoke a cigarette. I apologize if any of this is too basic.

First, you inhale through the cigarette, but you take it out to exhale. Don't try to exhale through the cigarette.

To light it, put it in your mouth and inhale lightly while holding the flame of the lighter to the tip for a moment. Take the lighter away and give it a few strongish, brief draws (inhalations) until it's well lit.

Now you can smoke it! The feeling is delightful, in my opinion, and it's like having your lungs wrapped in a warm blanket. Take a few long, slow draws of the cigarette and slowly blow the smoke out your mouth and nose. Now would be a great time to drink some bourbon.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 4:08 PM on May 14, 2007

Tobacco cigarettes:

It feels hot, when you draw smoke into your lungs—it's air moving past a fire, after all—and there's a sense of breathing and holding your breath at the same time. Like having held your breath already for a bit, perhaps: the tightness in your lungs, the sense of useless air trying to get out. It's not comfortable, really.

It's hard to control your lungs at first. People don't cough at first because they're smoking wrong, necessarily; they're just not used to the zen anti-spasm control required to get your body to take in a bunch of burning smoke and hold onto it.

A drag can be shallow or deep—likely shallower at first, when you start, as you ease in to the process. Later, when you're first feeling confident, you may tend to take long drags, hold them purposefully, and repeat, and then you'll find yourself feeling dizzy and ill because in your neophyte pride you overdid a bit and starved yourself of more oxygen than you should. Through both acclimation and better smoke/oxygen mixing, you stop doing that.

The nicotine rush is a small high, a light-headed pleasant hazy feeling that, if you smoke infrequently enough, still happens pretty much every time. It doesn't last long, and you like it.

You realize that don't know how to hold the cigarette, when it comes down to, well, holding it and talking and smoking it the first time. You watch yourself, you watch the people you're smoking with, you think of the old movies where people smoke and try to remember how they do it; you try to ash too often, or not often enough, and fumble in your attempts to keep the cigarette well-tended. You worry about being up- or down-wind of your compadres; you worry about where to hold it, when you're standing or when you're sitting at a table.

You might have trouble lighting it if it's windy; you might worry about burning your fingers when you cup your hands around the flame to keep the wind out. You might overdo it with the light and actually set the end of the cigarette on fire.

You're outside and you're not sure if you should flick the butt or look for a trashcan or drop it or what. You watch what your friends do, and emulate.

When you go to put it out, you might not grind it enough in the ashtray or on the bricks to really put out the embers. It's probably not a problem, but maybe you manage to start a little smolder among the leftover butts.

Your mouth gets dry, and tastes lousy. The smell of it sticks to you and your clothes. You get thirsty. Maybe you want to brush your teeth.
posted by cortex at 4:13 PM on May 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

i am (sadly) a long time smoker - and i have a hate/love/hate relationship with cigarettes.

if someone wanted to learn to smoke, the key thing to understand is that each drag of the cigarette actually requires 2 inhalations. 1st, you have to pull off the cigarette. suck in the smoke - it is more of a sucking action on the cigarette than inhaling. 2nd, after you have suck the smoke into your mouth, you then need to take a breath, inhale air normally with the smoke in your mouth. this second step is how the smoke is drawn into the lungs. those who smoke without inhaling, they only do the 1st step. (i hope this is indeed for a play, because i would hate to be responsible for bringing someone else under the influence of the evils of tabacco)

how do i feel when i smoke? that is a very hard question to answer - once you become a serious addict, smoking becomes part of your life. in a sense, it is like asking, how do you feel to live.

i hate it the most when my dependence on the drug is most consciously obvious to me - if i am somewhere where i am not allowed to smoke, and start experiencing early signs of withdrawal (head-ache, racing pulse, nervous) - then i really hate it. then i know just how much it controls me.

i love it the most when i am in a comfort zone. every smoker has certain situations which become intimately connected to smoking. talking on the phone, going to the bathroom (doing number 2), driving, and studying are all common trigger situations.

also for me, i am generally shy, and when i feel out of place in crowd - a cigarette is an escape, a safety blanket that gives me something to do besides feeling awkward in the group.
posted by Flood at 4:20 PM on May 14, 2007

Now here's what happens the first time you smoke a cigarette...

You'll probably cough. It's a natural reaction.

Then, presuming that you haven't bum-puffed it (held the smoke in your mouth instead of inhaling it), the nicotine gets into your system very quickly, making you feel heady, even sick. If you continue to smoke the cigarette, you will soon have a headache (although this depends on the strength of the cigarette). If you've been drinking, the lightheadedness is amplified, although the nausea is not so bad.

Your sense of smell is still good, so you are acutely aware of the smell in your mouth and nose, and on your hands (a smoker is less fazed by this, because their sense of smelled is duller).

Hand movements. Even after watching John Travolta looking slick and parting his fingers as he inhales, you'll still find yourself holding the cigarette awkwardly. It's a little stick of fire, something you're not used to holding in your fingers. Your hand movements as you take the cigarette to your mouth will be uncoordinated (possibly even jerky), and look unnatural to smokers.

All in all, you'll probably hate it.
posted by kisch mokusch at 4:23 PM on May 14, 2007

i quit smoking two years ago. i loved it - the warm feeling of the rough paper between my knuckles, the taste on my lips the feeling of the smoke in my lungs and going out through my lips and nostrils as i exhaled. it was warm, comforting, pleasant, calming. when i see some person smoking the brand i enjoyed most - export A, blue box - I steer myself so that i walk through the cloud and breath as much in as possible. I enjoyed smoking very much, and was never unhappy or really guilty about it, I just realized it was not healthy and to be able to swim and run the way I wanted to I had to quit :(.

I hope they come up with a non-carcinogenic, non-lung disease-y cigarette some day so I can smoke again.
posted by luriete at 4:24 PM on May 14, 2007

cortex describes it well. Fifteen years of smoking, and what I remember most from the early days was the headrush of dizziness, very much like standing up too quickly. The sensation goes away if you develop the habit (but returns every rare once in a while, for nostalgia's sake).

If I'm teaching you to smoke, and we're friendly enough that you don't think I have horrible cooties, I'd probably just light one and hand it to you. Actually I'd probably light two at once -- one for me and one for you -- like guys do for their dates in old movies. I'd stick 'em both in my mouth at once -- holding them lightly between my lips so as not to over-moisten the filter -- and talk around them, while puffing and waving a Zippo back and forth a few times. Then I'd remove one, grasping it between thumb and forefinger, and hand it to you filter-end first.

The delicate balance of inhaling with sufficient vigor, while not sucking down so much that you collapse in a choking fit, is material for Smoking 102. We're not trying to make you into Humphrey Bogart out of the gate... the first step is to learn how to inhale.
posted by mumkin at 4:31 PM on May 14, 2007

1st, you have to pull off the cigarette. suck in the smoke - it is more of a sucking action on the cigarette than inhaling. 2nd, after you have suck the smoke into your mouth, you then need to take a breath, inhale air normally with the smoke in your mouth. this second step is how the smoke is drawn into the lungs. those who smoke without inhaling, they only do the 1st step. (i hope this is indeed for a play, because i would hate to be responsible for bringing someone else under the influence of the evils of tabacco)

This is key. Need that intake of air otherwise you just got smoke in your mouth, which is par for the course for cigars, but not really smoking so far as cigarettes are concerned.
posted by juv3nal at 4:31 PM on May 14, 2007

"the key thing to understand is that each drag of the cigarette actually requires 2 inhalations. 1st, you have to pull off the cigarette. suck in the smoke - it is more of a sucking action on the cigarette than inhaling. 2nd, after you have suck the smoke into your mouth, you then need to take a breath, inhale air normally with the smoke in your mouth."

Thank you, this describes the "ah ha!" moment I had when I first started smoking and figured out how to inhale without choking. I've never been able to describe that two stage inhalation thing.
posted by hollisimo at 4:35 PM on May 14, 2007

I remember when my brother taught me to smoke. When I finally mastered the drawing the smoke into my lungs as opposed to my mouth, I wanted to throw up. I felt seriously nauseous, and the colour drained from my face.

In order to keep our mother in the dark, he suggested that I drink milk to cover the smoky breath - hah! Our mother's sense of smell was dead from years of smoking herself.

Later, when I really got into the smoking thing, I spent some time in front of a mirror to make sure I looked cool and sophisticated (ha) while poisoning myself.
posted by b33j at 4:36 PM on May 14, 2007

I was going to answer this... but I can't describe it. ...I think I forgot!

I used to smoke about a pack a day for like, twenty years. I quit a few years ago with a couple relapses. Last time I smoked was a year ago last April 13th. I mean gee I dunno... You inhale and there's smoke in your lungs. You exhale and cough unexpectedly. I recall now I had to cough the first time. I do remember it surprised me the first time. Even though you know it's coming I mean heck you're breathing smoke of course you're gonna cough the first time. It's never sudden and yet it's always sudden. That kinda thing.

Then comes the buzz. Weird almost (but not quite) tingly sensation. I usually felt it around the ears and the back of the neck. No big thing. Sometimes you don't notice it at all that first cig of the day but the first time you smoke you notice it. In hindsight I'm not sure why that makes you wanna keep doin it. Must be other subconscious stuff that you feel but don't pay attention to that makes it addictive? Cuz in hindsight I don't see why I kept doing it. It was nice to have something to do with my hands.

I think it's different for different people though. And my memory in this area is foggy for some reason. I think I'm just old.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:53 PM on May 14, 2007

It tastes hot and kind of acrid, but you get a feeling of expansion, sort of, in your lungs, like the way you feel after being at the beach all day - kind of like you breathed too deeply and your lungs are all stretched. It's a good feeling, but you kind of know it's bad for you.

When you first smoke, the buzz is nauseating as well as tingly.

When I smoked, I would suck it into my mouth, let the smoke kind of escape my mouth briefly, and then suck it back in, inhaling. I thought it made me look so cool.

I am sure it didn't.
posted by mckenney at 4:59 PM on May 14, 2007

Ex-smoker here. I mostly stopped because it got expensive and it wasn't enjoyable.

Smoking feels like throwing your lungs a warm blanket. Then, to me, it feels like your brain is focusing for a second, only to constrict slightly and give you a slight headache. Then you're thirsty and you want to brush your teeth and you wind up giving the rest of a pack to a homeless guy.

It wasn't always like this. I used to smoke unfiltereds, actually. Then one day I smoked three Virginia Ovals in a row and it felt like the floor dropped fifty feet. Quitting was easy after that.

It's worth noting that quitting is especially easy if you chew the gum - not necessarily because it reduces cravings, but because nicotine gum is about as tasty as rimming a bear. Also, your cheeks tingle and throwing up seems like a distant but probably solution to your woes.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:00 PM on May 14, 2007

In a very rough way it's somewhat like slurping one of those McDonalds-style shakes through a straw, except that the substance is hot and smokey instead of cold and thick, and it goes down the air path not the food path. But from a sensation standpoint, it's sort of like sucking on something through a straw, with the sense of resistance that you are drawing against.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:03 PM on May 14, 2007

First, lighting. The fire form the match is pulled through the cigarette by drawing air through the cig. This is similar to taking tiny, rapid sips through a small straw. There is resistance since the tube you're drawing smoke through is packed with leaves. Typically smoke is not taken into the lungs at this point, but is drawn into the mouth. This is the first taste of the tobacco you get.

Once the cherry (the ember at the tip of the cig) is established, the smoker typically takes a longer, fuller draw. Different smokers have different techniques at this point. I usually allow the smoke to cool briefly in my mouth before drawing it into my lungs, and this cuts down on the burning sensation that some people describe. The cooled smoke won't burn the throat or lungs as much so they give a warming sensation. Holding the smoke in the mouth also allows the smoker to do tricks with the smoke, like the "French Inhale" (allowing the smoke to drift from the mouth into the nostrils like a reverse waterfall) or allowing it to drift out to be swiftly inhaled back into the mouth, smoke rings and other such tricks.

The first draw is, for me, usually the most satisfying as after that it becomes a matter of getting nicotine into the bloodstream; addiction maintenance. The first draw is where a smoker will appreciate the unique flavor of whichever brand they are smoking and enjoying the richer notes of the tobacco.

Once the cig is smoked there's usually a somewhat bitter, ashy taste that lingers in the mouth for a while, but the richer, woody notes of the first draw linger in the lungs and throat, and on the fingers, so that a smoker may smell and taste the cigarette when breathing or bringing the fingers near the face. Facial hair also tends to trap the smell. This tends to last, for the smoker, up to a half-hour. Non-smokers may detect the smell longer, as the smoker tends to become acclimated to the odor.

The buzz, for me, seems like a short, non-jittery caffeine buzz, but with a sort of benevolent dizziness.

The taste of tabacco can have subtle flavors like grass (the lawn type), different woods, chocolate. Bad cigarettes tend to taste and smell like dirt or sawdust.
posted by lekvar at 5:19 PM on May 14, 2007

I haven't read everyone else's responses, so apologies if I repeat things previously said. Forgive the length, but you've inspired me.

So, I stare at my glass for a moment, and I feel like I'm missing something. My drinking partner is musing over his whisky... he seems content. But a girl across the bar is smoking and my half-empty pack of Camels hidden in my jacket pocket is calling to me.

"Do you mind if I...?" I ask my friend, bringing out the pack. Jees, I think, they are almost gone already.

"Go ahead," he says. "I feel like I'm smoking just sitting here." I offer him the pack.

"I don't smoke," he says.

"You don't smoke?" I reply. "Or you won't?"

"I just don't think it's for me."

"Go on, like you said, you're pretty much smoking just sitting there. And smoking is not something you want to experience passively. It'll make that whisky taste a hundred times better."

"Well," he says, "I do wonder sometimes what I'm missing." I push the pack across the table. "What's it like?"

I strike a match let it burn for a moment before lighting up. "It's kinda like eating something - except instead of the taste, the texture, the sensation of swallowing - you get the smell, the flavour, the feeling of filling your lungs with something other than air."

Holding the match to the end of it, I take a hard drag. He gingerly pulls one from the pack, and sticks it in his mouth.

"I feel cool already."

I smile, and let out the smoke.

"But if you want to avoid looking like an idiot, you've got to get something into your head. See, you don't normally have to think about breathing; it just happens. You have to be aware of your body, the way it works. You have to suck on it, then open your airway and breathe in the cocktail of deadly chemicals."

"You make it so appealing," he says. I light another match, and hold it in front of him. Apprehensively, he takes a pull.

"Now take it all in," I say. He does, smiling and rising up in his seat - then his eyes grow wider and he breaks into a coughing fit.

"Holy shit, that burns more than the whisky!" He says, and takes a gulp.

I smile again. "Takes some getting used to."

"That went straight to my head." He looks intently at the little stick, goes in for another. With a look of intense concentration, he holds it, and lets out a long line of smoke, straight into my face. This time, it's me that's coughing.

"That's the easy part," I say, taking another drag, and fire out some smoke rings. "That, on the other hand, will take you forever to get the hang of."

posted by Acey at 5:22 PM on May 14, 2007

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need a cigarette.
posted by Acey at 5:22 PM on May 14, 2007

These are good descriptions.

One thing that is easily overlooked about smoking is the practiced effortlessness of it. If you are a smoker you smoke ALL THE TIME, and probably have, every day, for a long time. You don't think about it when you light one, you don't think about it when you take a drag, when you tip your ashes or when you stump it out.

The subtleties of it are tricky, but only if you are unfamiliar enough to have to think about them.

It's like brushing your teeth. I'm sure everyone would agree that brushing your teeth is really easy, and that they don't think about the subtleties of it. BUT if you had never brushed your teeth before, or had only done so a few dozen times, it might be tricky to do it just right, without gouging the inside of your cheek, without grabbing the toothbrush like a hammer, without squirting toothpaste everywhere.

Smoking is like brushing your teeth 20 or 30 times a day, while driving and/or drinking coffee.
posted by dirtdirt at 5:31 PM on May 14, 2007

There is also something oh-so-cool about the pre-lighting ceremony - tapping the unopened pack side against your knuckles so that a cigarette emerges. Pulling it out and elegantly placing it between your lips in one motion, and then arching your swan-like neck forward slightly so that your male companion can gallantly light it for you.
posted by Oriole Adams at 5:49 PM on May 14, 2007

I imagine seasoned veterans appear so 'cool' and 'comfortable' with their smoking mannerisms is because that is exactly how they feel when they satisfy their craving. Cool and comfortable.

A new smoker is not yet addicted, and obviously struggles with inhaling a fiery stick of death. The positive reinforcement of the nicotine cools the addict out. I love watching my smoker friends go at it, it looks so incredibly natural. I'm just a social smoker, and feel constantly embarassed when I fail to light my smoke in one swooping motion all at the same time exhaling fantastic rings of excellence out into the atmosphere.
posted by ageispolis at 6:05 PM on May 14, 2007

Frasier: All right. Now Bebe, tell me, what is so wonderful about smoking?

Bebe: Everything. I like the way a fresh, firm pack feels in my hand. I like peeling away that little piece of cellophane and seeing it twinkle in the light. I like coasting that first, sweet cylinder out of it's hiding place and bringing it slowly to my lips. Striking a match. Watching it burst into a perfect, little flame and knowing that soon that flame will be inside me. I love the first puff, pulling it into my lungs. Little fingers of smoke filling me, caressing me, feeling that warmth penetrate deeper and deeper until I think I'm going to burst then WHOOSH! Watching it flow out of me in a lovely sinuous cloud; no two ever quite the same.

posted by peep at 10:34 PM on May 14, 2007

If you're teaching a n00b, here's an important tip:
If it's a filtered cigarrette, the filter end goes in your mouth.

I've tried it the other way (not paying attention, dark, ??) and it's definitely worse.
posted by MtDewd at 7:30 AM on May 15, 2007

Also, I don't know anyone who can make smoke rings with lung-inhaled smoke. I didn't realize that when I first started smoking and teaching myself how to blow smoke rings, and I kept wondering why mine were so thin and crappy compared to Juliette Lewis (who, despite her skankitude, blows the best smoke rings in existence). Once I realized it was mouth smoke, not lung smoke, I grew much happier with my smoke ring consistency.

Also, damn, this thread is making me want a cigarette.
posted by mckenney at 7:58 AM on May 15, 2007

See ikuyyus2's response on how stimulus-response conditioning is used in advertising, portrayal of smoking and everything to do with cigarettes and the packaging for some important background.

Actions occur in a cultural mileu, and this is no exception.
posted by lalochezia at 11:46 AM on May 15, 2007

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