Is the fashion industry undermining its sustainability stance with smoking?

Obviously smoking tobacco cigarettes is horrible for your health, but did you know it’s also just as bad for the environment and the long term public health. Thirdhand smoke — residual nicotine and other chemicals left on indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke — can actually become more toxic overtime. So in addition to the 7000 toxic chemicals that are released when someone lights up, the long term chemical exposure can impact public health, even after the smoke is gone. The process of making the cigarette causes it’s fair share of environmental degradation as well. Tobacco growing and curing leads to deforestation. It costs one tree to make approximately 300 cigarettes, or one-and-a-half cartons. Deforestation is responsible for the speed up of climate change, as well as soil erosion and disrupted water cycles, making it more difficult to grow plants in the future. Finally, cigarettes are the most littered item on earth according to Truth Initiative, an anti-smoking organization. Roughly 75% of smokers say they dispose of their cigarettes on the ground or outside their cars. For the record that means about 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butts end up on the ground as toxic waste every year! About 1 million of those butts are found on beaches alone.

When we think about bad habits in the fashion industry, overconsumption and unnecessary waste production usually come to mind. However, smoking, which has been shown in editorials and more recently through social media, is a big issue as well. Many people falsely believe that cigarettes are biodegradable, but the butt of the cigarette primarily includes the filter, which is made of a type of plasticized cellulose acetate. While the plastic particles do not readily biodegrade, the whole cigarette butt can breakdown due to natural elements like sunlight. The small plastic particles that are left get mixed in with soil or swept into water sources leading to issues like water pollution. E-cigarettes, like JUUL, may be a better for public health, but they are just as bad for the environment. JUULs use a single-use plastic pod to hold the vape juice which can contain nicotine and other toxic chemicals. E-cigarettes that are brought into waste centers are treated as an acute hazardous toxin and shipped off with other poisons or toxins. E-cigarettes also contain heavy metals and batteries that can leach into nearby waterways when they degrade. Just another way that smoking contributes to water pollution.

Smoking can be linked to fashion going all the way back to the 1920s when more women started smoking in order to convey rebellious and independent behavior since it was mostly a male activity prior to that. By 1945 smoking peaked and the average adult male was consuming about 12 cigarettes a day. Around the mid 1960’s — when about 42.4% of adults smoked — cigarette use began to steadily decline. Unfortunately, in the 1990s smoking started to noticeably increase in entertainment, specifically in TV and movies which presented characters who carried or smoked cigarettes. The 1993 W Magazine shopping issue featured several images of smoking, which prompted a New York Times article by Georgia Dullea claiming “cigarettes are about as chic as hypodermic needles”. Other than that, there was little outrage — or acknowledgment — of cigarette use in the pictures.

In 2011, when smoking had decidedly become uncool by most of society, it was still being heavily featured in fashion. At the Louis Vuitton fashion show on March 9th, 2011, Kate Moss walked the runway carrying and smoking a cigarette. The show was styled by Katie Grand, who is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Love Magazine. The publication, founded in 2009, has featured smoking and cigarette use in a good number of issues which are published bi-annually.

Marian Kwei, a British stylist and fashion designer, notes that the cigarette has become an iconic image in fashion, but she also says “The whole smoking thing in photoshoots has become boring. Every other image you see has a cigarette. It’s a lazy way of adding atmosphere.” Kwei is committed to stopping the use of smoking in fashion and in the past she admits she had to walk away from a photoshoot when the photographer or editor insisted on using cigarettes. There are other fashion insiders who are also calling out the use of cigarettes in the industry. Model Carré Otis spoke against the promotion of overly thin models in fashion and said this about her diet during an interview, “But in reality, my big diet staple was four to six cups of black coffee per day, avoiding even a splash of skim milk since I was terrified of extra calories. And to stave off hunger, I went through a few packs of cigarettes daily. Cigarettes with coffee gave me an energy boost.” As the industry moves away from the stick thin model image and consumers call for more diversity in modeling and fashion in general, smoking has also been encouraged to leave the industry. As Stephanie Talmadge said “photographers and art directors should let the modeling and styling speak for themselves, rather than relying on a poisonous prop.”

Just as ‘90s fashion trends like bike shorts have made a comeback in recent years, smoking seems to be gaining some traction recently as well. The fashion industry has a determination to go back in time and revive trends. Even though bigger publications have begun turning their back on smoking, indie and niche magazines still utilize cigarettes — of course this does not include ethical or sustainable focused magazines. Love magazine is the perfect example of this. The publication focuses on “edgy” fashion and includes smoking consistently in images featuring recognized models and celebrities. It’s not just in magazines that public figures have been seen carry cigarettes, though. The 2017 Met Gala went down in history when attendees, including well know designers, models, actresses, and personalities, posted pictures of themselves smoking in the bathrooms inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This incident led to an uproar from Met donors complaining and New York public health officials threatening to file charges. Anna Wintour, who is in charge of hosting the gala every year, tried to inform guests in 2018 that smoking was forbidden. That didn’t appear to work though, because at last year’s Met Gala, Cole Sprouse and Luka Sabbat took to Instagram to share pictures of themselves smoking in the bathrooms.


Smoking in fashion is just as prevalent today as it was 20 or 30 years ago, and it is still having an impact on consumer, especially young readers. A peer-reviewed paper published in Volume 18 of Health Education Research conducted a study using 117 students who were asked to rate smoking images and share their perspective of cigarette use. The students were aged 13-16 and were not told that the study would focus on smoking before they were shown the images. 78% of the students noticed or commented on the presence of cigarettes without being promoted by the facilitator. 64% of the students said that smoking was portrayed as “socially acceptable” in the images they were shown. Smoking was rated as acceptable or “cool” more often when the person doing it was generally considered attractive or fashionable. In general 52% of the students said media (including all print and digital fashion media) makes smoking look cool. Most students also said that smoking looked like a stress relieving activity. Still many students noted that the smoking portrayed in media only looked like a good thing because the negative consequences were not shown. “It looks like a good thing because it didn’t show the side effects of smoking.” Fashion magazines have prided themselves on being at the forefront of trends and being the original influencers. Vogue’s famous tag line is “before it’s in fashion, it’s in Vogue”. When a big magazine like that chooses to show smoking, they are promoting it to their readers.

Young adults, especially, have a harder time distinguishing between art and something they should emulate. The most important numbers from the study are 78 and 52. The 78% percent who notice smoking unprompted show that cigarettes are not just small props and they are obvious and recognized. And when possibly impressionable readers do see the cigarettes, 52% think they look enticing.

People will keep smoking if they want to, but how they represent it on social media and in publications is where it starts to get into tricky territory. When a celebrity sneaks a cigarette at the Met Gala and posts it on social media, that is a direct reflection on Vogue. It’s even worse when neither Vogue or Anna Wintour publicly condones the act. The presentation of cigarettes also undermines any environmental activism that the fashion industry is trying to do. Vogue may publish an article about the impacts of overconsumption but the positive impact from that is cancelled out when they host an event where the most polluted item on earth is used as an accessory.