Smoke'em if you got'em...just do it outside!
October 1, 2007 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Why do cigarettes smell so much better outside?

I can't be the only one who's noticed. When you walk past somebody who's just lit up outside, there's a delightful quality to the smoke. It smells fantastic. Doesn't seem to matter what brand, or what the weather is like. But as soon as you step indoors, if that same person lights up, the smoke smells different; somehow less intense. What gives? Is there some chemical difference going on, or is it all in my head?
posted by cosmicbandito to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's because the smoke just sorta hangs around inside and gets overwhelming, plus the smell of smoke radiating off of upholstery is kinda gross.

Cigars smell awesome indoors and out, though.
posted by cmonkey at 12:19 PM on October 1, 2007

I like the smell of cigarettes outside too. I don't smoke, but I always figured it was associated with some happy event in my past. Maybe hanging around with friends in high school or something.
posted by electroboy at 12:21 PM on October 1, 2007

I also hate the smell of smoke...I guess it's just undesirable to some people.

As far as your question, I'd guess that it has something to do with the air outside. Air inside is usually more stagnant because it's the same stuff that's been in there all day. Same reason it feels really good to take a deep breath of air when you're outside, and not so much when you're in a building. I guess they don't call it "fresh air" for nothing :)
posted by DMan at 12:24 PM on October 1, 2007

It could be some of the more volatile chemicals in cigarette smoke evaporate pretty quickly and some of the heavier stuff like tars and particulates hang around when you're inside and mask the smell of the volatiles.
posted by electroboy at 12:25 PM on October 1, 2007

Lots of tastes and smells are perceived differently depending on their concentration. Eg, a snort of perfume is nose searing, a faint waft is alluring.

I know just what you mean, and I would hazard that the reason is that outside the smoke disperses faster and is way more dilute by the time it hits your nostrils. Also, outside you don't have any of the funky undernotes from ashtrays and tarry furnishings.

It's not just tobacco smoke. A hint of wood smoke in the open air is famously an evocative and pleasant smell. (But not a cloud of it in your face).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:27 PM on October 1, 2007

Perhaps it has something to do with the dispersal of the smoke particles. With more air movement outside, on a walk-by inhale you're probably smelling a smaller amount of the smoke than you would inside. Perhaps some of the qualities or ingredients which make up a small percentage of the smoke are then more apparent/not overwhelmed by the other elements.

I've noticed this as well...almost like it smells sweeter outside? Good question.
posted by eralclare at 12:28 PM on October 1, 2007

I'm not certain if you're talking about a time-duration thing. I think cigarettes smell better within the first few second of them being lit. Perhaps when you're passing by a person lighting up you just get that initial whiff, while when you're inside you get the whole shebang, which isn't nearly as pleasant.
posted by that girl at 12:31 PM on October 1, 2007

I've noticed this too. Seconding i_am_joe's_spleen's answer.
posted by vacapinta at 12:35 PM on October 1, 2007

One possibility is the short-lived nature of free radical compounds in the smoke. I'm pretty sure they react with molecular oxygen among other things in the atmosphere. I don't really know the time-scale that all the different types of radicals react on, but it's possible you can smell more in fresh smoke than in stale smoke.
posted by Durin's Bane at 12:37 PM on October 1, 2007

I like the way that smoke looks outdoors. The winding in the wind and looping around in the sky. I also think it smells better outside because, while you have the smell, it isn't omnipresent.

The smell Camel Lights leaves on wool coats in the winter? Possibly one of the most comforting smells in the world to me.
posted by banannafish at 12:45 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I, too, love the way cigarette smoke smells outdoors. To jump on electroboy's point, I think it's because the smell reminds me of Little League Baseball games I played in as a young boy. Almost every parent smoked at those games AND those were some of the happiest days of my life. I think my mind associates the two.
posted by unclejeffy at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2007

I didn't ask if you liked the smell. I asked why it smells different.

It doesn't to me. Smells the same crappy way inside and out.

One major difference, though, is that inside a place that allows smoking there's like to be much more stale smoke in the furniture and walls to also smell. Stale smoke is even more revolting than the fresh kind.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:59 PM on October 1, 2007

I haven't noticed indoor/outdoor, but to my nose, in cold weather, cigarette smoke always smells worse -- harsher somehow.
posted by misterbrandt at 1:07 PM on October 1, 2007

Wow? Really? Because smoke always smells much *worse* to me outside.

I notice this a lot. If I'm in a bar, etc., and there's smoke I adjust. It's just smoky, and I get used to it being smoky, and after a few minutes I don't really notice it.

On the other hand, I often find myself sitting or working outside, hoping to get some fresh air. At just these moments, some smoker always sits down at the table next to mine, and lights up, causing my airflow to alternate between smoky and nice fresh air. This is much more distracting and annoying to me than just being a place that's generally full of smoke, since the changing smell of the air demands my attention, and spoils the fresh air that was the whole reason I'd wanted to go do some reading outside in the first place.
posted by washburn at 1:11 PM on October 1, 2007

I agree with two things: one, that it can dissipate, and therefore isn't as immediately concentrated the way it is indoors; plus, if there's smoking indoors, there's probably been smoking indoors before, and stale old smoke is disgusting.

Also, the mental connection. My partner smoked when I first met her, and I smoked with her socially a bit around that time, and recently I walked into an elevator where someone had just been in who had been smoking the same brand/type, and it smelled heavenly to me.

I am not a smoker, but I will admit to liking the smell on occasion. I like smells in general, though.
posted by atayah at 1:19 PM on October 1, 2007

The only smokable product that smells good indoors and out is pipe tobacco. More people need to smoke it, IMHO, just not me.
posted by pmbuko at 1:26 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I haven't noticed indoor/outdoor, but to my nose, in cold weather, cigarette smoke always smells worse -- harsher somehow.
posted by misterbrandt

I have the opposite. Smokes and sunshine DO NOT MIX. Nothing seems weirder to me than smoking on the beach. But in cold weather or nighttime outside, a whiff of smoke seems like it fits.
posted by desuetude at 1:52 PM on October 1, 2007

Mod note: a few comments removed, if you have trouble reigning in your distaste for smoking please feel free to take that to METATALK, or maybe the radiohead thread.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:35 PM on October 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

As others have pointed out, I suspect it's due to concentration. The accumulation of particles indoors makes it oppressive.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:22 PM on October 1, 2007

I think they have something upthread with the furnishings and that smoke outside is first-time new smoke versus many-time old smoke. My chesterfield was many shades lighter after the first steam clean. A friend of mine can smell the old smoke in a bar with old pre-smoking ban carpets.

(I miss cigarettes. 493 days.)
posted by philfromhavelock at 6:23 PM on October 1, 2007

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