Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 1-24

First online:

Taking Play Seriously: Low-Level Smoking Among College Students

  • Peter StrombergAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, University of Tulsa Email author 
  • , Mark NichterAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, University of Arizona
  • , Mimi NichterAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, University of Arizona

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Cigarettes have been socially engineered to become potent symbols. Therefore, they need to be understood as cultural products invested with cognitive and emotional salience as well as nicotine delivery devices engineered to create a population of dependent users. In this paper, we look at the symbolism of cigarettes, but unlike many researchers examining this topic, we attend as much to what tobacco users do with cigarettes as to what smoking means to them cognitively. Based on interviews with low-level smokers conducted on two college campuses, we suggest that students use tobacco in order to accomplish interactional goals and to structure social time and space that would otherwise be ambiguously defined. By conceptualizing this structuring activity as play, we gain valuable insights into early stages and trajectories of tobacco use among college students. Our conceptualization of smoking as play is not meant to trivialize low-level tobacco use. Much the opposite, we caution that the contexts in which low-level smoking takes place and the utility functions of such smoking must be taken seriously by researchers in light of current increases in tobacco use among college students.


smoking college students boredom drinking ethnography