Young celebrities like Timothée Chalamet are smoking cigarettes. Here's why it matters, say public health experts.

Timothee Chalamet with Kylie Jenner
Timothée Chalamet, here with Kylie Jenner, is facing criticism for smoking cigarettes. (Getty Images)

Cigarette smoking has seen a steep decline in the past few decades, as studies have proven their toxicity and programs to deter young people from the tobacco products have been successful. So when actor Timothée Chalamet was photographed with a cigarette in hand at a recent Beyoncé concert — while getting close with Kylie Jenner — the revelation was met with plenty of criticism. For example:

However, Chalamet isn’t the only young celebrity lighting up. As Kathleen Walsh writes in the Glamour piece, perhaps people “may learn that far more of their favorite celebrities have a cigarette habit than they realize.”

In fact, Florence Pugh and Anya Taylor-Joy, both 27, and Jenna Ortega and Lily-Rose Depp, both 20, have all been photographed smoking cigarettes this year. Chalamet's rumored girlfriend Jenner was also caught holding what looked to be a pack of cigarettes. And Dua Lipa, 28, has posted Instagram photos herself featuring cigarettes — one which garnered a comment, “The fact that you smoke occasionally is super sexy.”

Public health experts say this is troubling.

“Celebrities are influencers — for good or bad. Those young people who think smoking is OK because of who they see smoking are getting a pull toward trying cigarettes,” Lynn Kozlowski, dean emeritus for the school of public health at SUNY Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life. “For each person so influenced to smoke, they risk becoming one of the three in five smokers who die prematurely.”

Who is smoking?

Gallup surveys show that the percentage of U.S. adults who smoke cigarettes has reached a new low as of 2022, with a particularly staggering decline among 18- to 29-year-olds. However, other data suggests that young adults beginning at 25 are still smoking in relatively high numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12.6% of people ages 25 to 44 smoke cigarettes, making them the second-highest group of smokers after the 45 to 64 age category.

The New York Times reported in 2022 that “smoking is back,” as sources shared anecdotally that friends in their 20s who had never smoked cigarettes before had begun to. This aligns with findings reported by the National Cancer Institute that the age of initiation for smokers has moved up over the years. “Today it is not only youth who are at risk for smoking initiation. We will need to carefully consider young adults as well,” said Annette Kaufman of the NCI’s Tobacco Control Research Branch.

Definitive evidence about the return of cigarettes is still lacking; however, the Federal Trade Commission reported an increase in cigarette sales in 2021 — the first in 20 years. Most recently, the cigarette brand Hestia — the first to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 15 years — has even used the taboo surrounding cigarettes to market its product.

“By making cigarettes taboo and ridiculously censored, they became cool for young people,” a blogger who goes by Meg Superstar Princess told the New York Post.

Plus, as Salvatore Fallica, adjunct professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, tells Yahoo Life, “We’re seeing a kind of ’80s resurgence in the culture, so it’s a throwback. Smoking has always been part of that rebellious image. Today, cigarettes really offer this kind of image of rebellion that [marijuana] maybe once did.”

Why does this matter?

Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the United States, according to the CDC. And while smoking rates are still at an all-time low, images of celebrities and cigarettes may soon have an impact on those numbers.

The CDC lists the factors associated with youth tobacco use, which include the way that mass media depicts tobacco use as a normal activity and young people seeing others their age using these products. “Young people are inordinately influenced by celebrities,” adds Fallica, noting the images of stars like Chalamet and Lipa. “And young people will inculcate that in their personal habits.”

The Truth Initiative, the country’s largest nonprofit public health organization dedicated to ending nicotine and tobacco use, confirms this with research that draws connections between tobacco use among youth and its portrayal on screen and on social media. In 2018, the organization highlighted Instagram photos of Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid with cigarettes, noting that they “may help tobacco companies recruit more young smokers” by normalizing and even glamorizing the use of tobacco products.

In 2023, the organization finds, the existence of tobacco imagery in popular shows and movies — including in seven of the 10 films nominated for Academy Awards in March — is an ongoing concern. “Smoking, often portrayed as glamorous and edgy, remains pervasive on screen even as research warns that exposure to it can influence young people to start smoking and vaping,” the organization shared, referring to a conclusion that was reached over a decade ago in a 2012 surgeon general report.

And while there are fans denouncing the smoking behavior of their favorite celebs — “I fear I have entered my Timothée Chalamet ick era,” one wrote on X — Fallica says the prevalence of such cigarette-wielding alone might matter more than the reaction. “If the cigarette and tobacco industry is making inroads into the culture,” he says, “that’s what I'm worried about.”