Smoking in Adolescents, then and now

The forbidden fruit of the 1960s schoolboy was smoking, a school magazine of the era reveals. Rhys David reports

Fewer than one in five men and women smoke in Britain and the numbers have been declining year by year. Nor are they smoking as many cigarettes. Only fifty years or so ago, however, a surprising number even of pre-teens from largely middle-class homes had taken up the habit, as a survey in an issue of a school magazine from 1967 illustrates.

Tua’r Goleuni (Towards the Light), the magazine (and the motto) of Cardiff High School for Boys was a conventional magazine of its type, edited by pupils under the guidance of a teacher, full of sports, after-school club and house activities for the preceding year, and enlivened by schoolboy prose and poetry, and quizzes. In 1963 the boys of the upper sixth form had the idea of surveying their younger confreres in the first three forms on their smoking habits and their findings offer an interesting commentary on how times and attitudes have changed.

 

Year 1967 Smokers Occasional Smokers Never Smoked
1a 2 8 15
1b 6 10 11
1c 2 8 15
2a 5 15 7
2b 7 20 8
2c 5 16 7
3a 4 20 8
3b 9 20 7
3c 8 14 9

 

In this typical big city grammar school of its time, a total of 171 boys were questioned, sixty per cent of the total across the three year-groups (averaging 30 pupils per class). Their answers tell us much about attitudes across the group, though the veracity of the replies clearly cannot be vouched for. Some allowance needs perhaps to be made for schoolboy braggadocio.

Remarkably, however, 26 eleven-year olds (in the first-year forms) claimed to be regular or occasional smokers, compared with 41 who had not done so. Some will therefore have started even before they left primary school, perhaps, it is suggested in a few cases, as early as age six or seven. Two years later 75 third year boys were smokers (including occasionally) and only 24 had never been tempted.

The differences between the A stream (the more academic pupils) and their peers is not great, it is observed, though for some reason, which perhaps only child psychologists could have answered, the incidence in the B form is highest. The stress of being in the middle, and of falling between the two extremes of A and C perhaps, and of not knowing which would be the direction of travel? Boys in the C form were the more inveterate smokers, however, we are told, averaging four or five cigarettes a week compared with 1 or 2 among the more sensible A streamers.

Non-smokers generally thought smoking bad but mainly because it was a waste of money. About a quarter of this group expected to smoke when older, though one half were sure they would not. Others expressed a preference for a pipe, on the (erroneous) grounds it was healthier. Smokers recognised it was habit-forming, (though not in their case, of course) but several admitted concern at representations of habitual smokers racked with illness, with hardened arteries and stunted growth. The ill health threat could be countered by dropping the practice, many felt, and although the link between excessive smoking and cancer was recognised by many, the habit was conceived as a way to settle nerves or help relaxation, the influence perhaps of contemporary advertising.  So perhaps teenage stress at school is not such a new phenomenon after all.

Most significantly, however, in the 1960s having a whiff was seen by most of those who participated in the practice as a way of rebelling. They enjoyed dodging authority by doing something they were not allowed to do, some even saying they would not smoke at all if there were no restrictions. Showing-off was admitted to be another strong motivator, with few claiming to enjoy the activity. Most smoking took place in bedrooms, back streets, parks, football matches and cinemas, often only at weekends or at parties, with only a few saying they were prepared to smoke in streets where they might be recognised.

The thrill of buying cigarettes over the counter meant boys preferred this to using slot machines, though in general they would not buy matches at the same time (presumably as this would suggest they were for personal consumption rather than for an adult who had sent them on an errand). Many only smoked cigarettes offered to them.

Two out of three boys said their parents had spoken about smoking usually to warn against taking up the habit and most thought their parents were ignorant of their sons’ actions. Most boys were not critical of their parents for smoking but thought teachers should not do so in front of junior boys and should smoke only in their common room.

In conclusion the authors offer a sanguine judgment, suggesting the warnings by the eminent physician, Sir Richard Doll, who first showed the link between smoking and cancer, had yet to take effect. “It would appear that very little immediate harm can come to schoolboys from the small amount that they smoke. Many of the boys who smoked are members of the rugby and cross-country teams and so far, they have suffered no noticeable effects,” they concluded.

Tua’r Goleuni, the Cardiff High School Magazine, June 1963. No. 19. Pps 10-11

Rhys David is an author and economic commentator

rhys.david@btinternet.com 

www.clippings.me/rhysdavid

www.rhysdavidblog.wordpress.com

September 2018