Why are music and cigarette addiction so intrinsically linked?

A musician, a photographer and a scientist go deep on why so many musicians smoke

“A disproportionately high number of musicians smoke because it goes together like cheese and biscuits,” says Jon McClure, lead singer of Sheffield band Reverend And The Makers, when asked why music and cigarette addiction are so closely linked. “All my heroes growing up smoked, I thought it was cool, I started and now I’m addicted.”

When legendary rock and pop photographer Mike Prior was 15 or 16 years old, he was given a book of Gered Mankowitz’s work, and there was one particular shot that made him want to become a snapper.

“The picture that really stood out to me was of Jimi Hendrix laughing and smoking,” he says. “He looked so cool. He wasn’t playing guitar, he was just laughing and looked happy. He made you want to smoke.”

Photo of Jimi HENDRIX; posed, smoking cigarette
Jimi Hendrix

Images of other musicians like David Bowie and Bob Marley, smoking cigarettes, are seared into his mind. These are powerful things for a teenager to see, and when you think about it, the list of musicians who’ve had their picture taken while smoking a snout is long and illustrious: Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Pete Doherty, Courtney Love, Liam Gallagher, Amy Winehouse, Keith Richards, Whitney Houston, David Bowie, Dave Grohl, Matty Healy, and many more.

Prior’s thoughts on why, from a photographer’s perspective, musicians like to smoke: “It’s cool and it’s sexy, and makes you look you don’t give a fuck what people think. And it just looks so good in photographs.”

Another suggestion is that creative people possibly have brains that are more susceptible to addiction. In a 2011 interview in Scientific American the neuroscientist David Lindin – and author of the book The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good – said that although he can’t find a link “between creativity and addiction per se”, he thinks “there is a link between addiction and things which are a prerequisite for creativity” such as being a “risk-taking, novelty-seeking and compulsive” person, which leads you to seek pleasure and reward from drugs, fags, and booze.

A 2011 study by the University Of Missouri concurs with Lindin’s findings, and found that 18-35 year olds who smoked were “higher in two distinct personality traits during young adulthood” than people who didn’t: impulsivity (acting without caring about the consequences), and neuroticism (being emotionally negative and anxious).

Someone who has been very open about having these personality traits is Matty Healy, whose band The 1975 recently headlined Reading & Leeds Festivals, and if you have a little Google you can see pics of him smoking on stage. Smoking is something he has talked about quite a bit. In September 2018, he told NME about his smoking patterns: “All the commas in my life used to be drugs or cigarettes – get in the car have a cig, get out of the car have a cig, after dinner have a cig, before food have a cig, have a chat to you have a cig.” In January this year he said, in an interview with Another Man magazine, that it feels wrong to be interviewed without one.

Smoking cigarettes is of course 100% legal and Matty Healy is of course an intelligent human being who is completely within his rights to do so. But if his fans – budding musicians among them, presumably – see him smoking on stage and in pictures, will it make them more likely to smoke? Yes, probably, says Dr Hebe Gouda – Project Officer in the Noncommunicable Diseases department of the World Health Organization.

“There’s a fair bit of evidence about cigarette use being influenced by celebrities,” she says. “And the evidence points towards the fact that indirect advertising in the form of people smoking in movies – and there wouldn’t be much distinction with the music industry – being an effective way of convincing youth to smoke. It’s really quite worrying.”

Jon McClure of Reverend and The Makers
Jon McClure of Reverend and The Makers

McClure again, agreeing with Gouda: “As a society we’re quite nostalgic for the great time rock’n’ roll and the entertainment business and the classic age of Hollywood. Smoking is forever synonymous with the golden years of popular culture when everybody smoked, so it’s been turned into an iconic thing that is really just another dirty habit.”

Your favourite rock star does it, but it’s lethal. So why do people still do it? It’s not cool it’s dumb. And if you need help to quit, the NHS have some top tips for you: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/quit-smoking/10-self-help-tips-to-stop-smoking/

Read more about how to kick your bad habits at Change Incorporated

Advertisement paid for by Change Incorporated (VICE) for its Quit Cigarettes initiative. Philip Morris International funds this initiative but has no editorial input, so may not share the views expressed.