‘It’s definitely back’: Gen Z’s dirty obsession

“Would you like some darts? They’re from Japan,” says Will, 26, as a cloud of smoke billows over his shoulder.

He hands a pack of cigarettes to a 20-something girl. No cancer warning labels. Just the Japanese writing on the nice white and gold packaging.

He buys them from a small shop in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, which imports them illegally and sells them for more than half the price of legally traded cigarettes – a hidden, completely unregulated black market that costs the government more than $3 million a year in tax losses .

Despite his blotchy skin and bloat, Will appears wise and confident. It’s like he knows everything – especially when he talks about how smoking can lead to higher testosterone levels and better training in the gym. Thanks to former tobacco marketing executives, that perception is still there, as is the smell.

“How does it taste?” asks the girl.

“They’re not flavored!” laughs one of their comrades, offering a smoke from his imported pack.

The girl just got back from Coachella in the California desert, where Hailey Bieber made headlines for using the lip gloss holder on her phone case to store cigarettes. The festival was fine, says the girl.

“I sprained my ankle.”

She lights up.

Will and his friends are kicking back in the shadow of an alleyway outside a party after the end of Australian Fashion Week.

The hottest fads of the season? Underwear as outerwear. Thick boots. And more disturbingly, cigarettes.

The gritty style of the 90s that harkens back to the space-age hyper pop of the 2000s is à la mode.

Especially for the Zoomers, most of whom weren’t even born until well into those decades. But being trendy is on the nose.

“There’s a generation of people who haven’t seen black mucus expelled from their lungs,” says Professor Emily Banks, a public health physician and epidemiologist at the Australian National University, of the intense national anti-smoking campaign that has saturated the mass media. between 1997 and 2001 – with rotting lungs, cancerous tongues and glass beakers of brown tar with the slogan “every cigarette does you harm”.

“There was a real lull – a good decade when we didn’t have it.”

Twenty-somethings look back on the era through rose-colored glasses—preferably in the form of the wraparound visors that were in vogue at the time.

“Cigarette smoking is definitely back,” says Alistair Fawcus, 26.

The TikToker has amassed over 500,000 followers on the video platform with clips that nod to the Y2K era he was born into.

“Cigarettes are in, electronic devices are out,” he says.

His girlfriend Brigette agrees with the move away from e-cigarettes, which have been at the center of the crackdown.

“Smoking is never ‘in’, but there is a movement towards analogue, nostalgia and antiquity over modernity,” he says.

Currently, all data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows a decline in cigarette smoking, which remains the leading cause of preventable death in Australia, while the wastewater analysis for 2023 shows an increase in nicotine consumption in areas of Australia.

“The data is reliable and the results speak to the many decades of dedicated work Australia has put into tobacco control. But nicotine is incredibly addictive and any promotion of harmful products – direct or covert – … to impressionable young people … is designed to win new customers for the insidious Big Tobacco industry,” says Rachael Andersen, director of Quit, an organization that aims to reduce smoking rates.

“More than 20,000 Australians still die each year from smoking-related diseases. We will continue to do everything we can to support people to quit.”

Figures show that vape use is on the rise in Australia and experts warn that those who indulge in the habit are more likely to start smoking. This is the case for Will, who, like many people, tries to justify the switch.

“Cigarettes are bad and everyone knows the effects – if you keep smoking, you will get cancer,” he says. “But our generation is now turning away from vapes because cigarettes are so much healthier for you.”

Professor Banks scoffs.

“If you smoke, you’re basically bathing your lungs in toxic chemicals,” he says. “Even what people might think of as light smoking is incredibly harmful. One to five cigarettes a day will increase the chance of lung cancer ninefold.”

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler says raising the cost of tobacco is one of the most effective and efficient ways governments can reduce consumption – particularly among young people.

“Many smokers and recent ex-smokers report that the high price of tobacco products is a key motivating factor in their attempts to quit or cut down,” he says.

“Research in Australia and overseas has shown that lower income groups such as young people and lower socio-economic populations tend to respond to price increases.”

Universal student Victoria Pennel, 18, says high prices could be what make or break her new habit. She only started smoking cigarettes a few weeks ago when she was on the run in a country town where there were no vape supplies.

“Smoking is very European and Australia is really dying out of that European culture,” she says as she juggles a cigarette, her purse, car keys and a carton of cigarettes with an image of rotting teeth.

She spent $32 on a pack of cigarettes at the tobacconist and now wonders how she’ll keep up the social habit.

“It’s the cheapest I could find—spending $50 on cigarettes is a lot,” she says.

But Rohan Pike, a former Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force officer who helped found the original tobacco strike group, says raising tobacco prices is not enough to tackle smoking.

“The fallacy behind Australian tobacco policy is that the more price rises you have and the more unattractive you make legal cigarettes, the more people will quit – or provide revenue to the government by buying a taxed product,” he says.

“And that’s all well and good until there’s a readily available and thriving black market where people can get it everywhere and very easily. But that’s how it is. So when they have to decide whether they’re going to spend $50 on a pack of cigarettes or $20 on a pack of cigarettes, everyone’s going to choose the $20 pack and that’s what they’re doing.”

In major shops across Sydney, young people can buy illegal cigarettes alongside a packet of mia goreng for dinner, with change left over.

The packs — ranging from $13 to $25 — are stored under the counter, in drawers and in cash slots at the register. Some retailers price match competing stores. Others offer specials: two packs for $25 cash.

“Smuggled. Black market,” says a shop owner on Sydney’s Newtown entertainment street as he opens a raffle full of illegal imports.

Noticeably missing are the graphic cancer warning labels mandated by the Australian government in 2012.

The Australian Taxation Office estimates the black market accounts for 13.1 per cent of the tobacco trade, but Mr Pike believes it is closer to 25 per cent.

“They budgeted for $15 billion to be raised through legal sales, and they raised $10 billion – so $5 billion just disappeared in a year and apparently went straight to the black market,” he says.

In January, the federal government announced a $188.5 million crackdown on the tobacco black market, with most of the funds used to stop illegal imports into Australia. He is also called the Illicit Tobacco and Vaping Commissioner. Violent wars broke out in Victoria over the black market trade in cigarettes.

Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health Becky Freeman questions why tobacco retailers across the country are not restricted by the same guidelines as bottle shops.

“It’s unfortunate that Australia has yet to implement a tobacco licensing system,” he says, pointing out how the model used in Tasmania has caused many retailers to leave the tobacco market.

“Licensing tobacco retailers is the first thing, because then we can enforce what they sell. If you want to be a tobacconist selling a deadly and addictive product, there should be a high fee for that.”

Back on the concrete runway, which has become a makeshift runway for non-fashion week attendees, one young guy with his shirt unbuttoned waves a lit cigarette while posing for the camera.

“I started smoking because of fashion week,” he says. “It’s the atmosphere.”

A male model lights up nearby. He only started smoking a few months ago when he was in Paris. Having brought the habit home with him, he now carries a vintage-style gold metal cigarette case. Online marketplace Etsy says searches for vintage or antique lighters have increased 64 percent in the past three months.

“The data shows we’re still seeing a decline (in smoking), but one of the things we know about smoking is that if you take your foot off the pedal, it goes back up,” Professor Banks says. “With this re-glamorization, it could go up again.”

Young Hollywood stars like Timothée Chalamet and Lily-Rose Depp have recently been photographed by the paparazzi. At Edward Crutchley’s recent fashion show at London Fashion Week, models were equipped with unlit cigarettes.

Big Tobacco may be restricted by advertising bans, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The Internet has become a nostalgic scrapbook of nicotine-scented “subculture.”

The @mka_smoking Instagram account, which exclusively features photos of Y2K stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen puffing on cigarettes, has more than 12,000 followers.

Professor Freeman, whose research focuses on tobacco control and the impact of the internet and social media, says cigarette marketing has always been “romanticized with nostalgia”.

“In the 90s you had advertising that mimicked the 30s – noir with black and white images,” he says. “So there’s always been this untouchable glamor aspect of smoking promotion.”

At the age of 25, Gregg Andrews was still in diapers when his personal icon Kate Moss, 50, was at the height of lecherous hard fun on the international modeling scene.

“I’m a huge fan of Kate Moss and she still smokes,” he exhales.

He hates his “smoking face” but that doesn’t stop him. He seems more world-weary than he should be.

“I was vaping for a short time, but then vaping got boring,” he says.

When it comes to draining the glamor out of smoking, advertising guru Dee Madigan says young people don’t care if they’re told they’ll die of lung cancer in 50 years.

“Tell them they stink and you might get their attention all of a sudden,” he says. “You stink.”

Until then, being on your nose is fashionable – and affordable.

Facebook: @hellojamesweir

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