The results for Highsmoke (H) and Lowsmoke (L) are presented separately. The codes related to the quotes below refer to the participants. The first letter refers to their school (H or L). The second letter refers to male (M) or female (F). The third character is D if it was said in a FGD or a number if it was said in an interview.
Highsmoke was a vocational school with 250 adolescents. Adolescents did not attend school five days a week, but had a work placement for up to four days per week. The survey showed that 49% of 3rd and 4th graders had ever smoked and that 17% smoked daily. Also, 46% were girls and 50% were exposed to at least one smoking parent.
Highsmoke prohibited smoking in the school buildings and on the premises. However, adolescents were allowed to smoke in a designated smoking area outside the premises, but that was accessible only via the premises and located adjacent to the area where non-smokers spend their breaks. Non-smokers could stand on the school premises near to the smokers. Some areas outside the school premises were also used for smoking, which provided some basic facilities, including shelter and a bench. Highsmoke allowed adolescents from the 4th grade onwards to smoke. Highsmoke actively prevented the school timetables from having free-hours in between lessons. This technically meant that smoking was limited to 4th graders onwards and during breaks.
Adolescents at Highsmoke perceived smoking as normal behaviour; smokers easily admitted their nicotine addiction, did not feel ashamed to smoke alone or in the full sight of others, and did not feel judged for smoking by others. We identified two shared smoking patterns that underscored the benefits of smoking during school hours: Dependent smoking and Rebellious smoking.
3.1.1. Dependent Smoking
Where: official smoking area;
When: every school break;
With whom: anyone who wants to smoke or stand near a smoker;
Why (social meaning): deal with stress and need for nicotine.
The majority of smokers smoked during school breaks at the school’s official smoking area. School breaks were seen as an opportunity to consume the necessary amount of nicotine to get through the upcoming hours, as there were no other opportunities to smoke.
Moderator: “How much do you smoke during a break?”
Girl2: “Me too”.
Moderator: “So what if you’d smoke only one?”.
Girl1: “Then I go crazy (…) can’t sit still, no more concentration and can only think of that [smoking]” (HFD).
Boys and girls smoked together in an indistinct group that also included non-smokers. They stood either alone, with their friends or with anyone who is having a smoke. Smoking during school hours was widely accepted; most adolescents did not judge smokers as those against smoking were clearly framed as the minority.
“I don’t think so because there are many smokers (…) The only ones who really are against smokers are those ‘real anti-smokers’” (HF1).
The widespread acceptance of smoking related to adolescents’ perceptions that everyone could be a smoker and that there are sensible external reasons that could cause someone to start smoking and so become nicotine dependent.
Boy1: “When I joined this school I noticed right away that there is a lot of smoking”.
Boy2: “I think about a quarter of the school”.
Boy1: “Maybe even half”.
Boy3: “Even those individuals you don’t expect”.
Boy1: “Yes, these correct types.” (HMD).
One reason they gave for starting smoking was that it reduces stress. This stress was oftentimes associated to the school setting or the home environment. Another reason was group pressure. The group pressure at school was quite strong, as some adolescents stated that they need to actively prevent themselves from giving in to this group pressure.
“I protect myself by not standing there [near smokers] (…) I’m afraid that they will ask me [to smoke] and I’m not the type of person that easily says no” (HMD).
The decision to start smoking was nevertheless generally seen as an individual choice because someone always has the option to say no. Both smokers and non-smokers therefore argued that adolescents who need to smoke during school hours should not be withheld from the opportunity to smoke a cigarette.
Girl1: “It is their own life and if they want to smoke because they really need it, then it should be possible” (HFD).
3.1.2. Rebellious Smoking
Where: outside the school premises;
When: every school break;
With whom: single-gender friend groups;
Why (social meaning): expresses toughness.
A minority of smokers smoked during school breaks at locations just outside the school premises, predominantly behind a bus station with an adjacent bench. These adolescents smoked in single-gender friend groups that consisted only of smokers. They smoked outside the premises because it allowed them to meet with adolescents from other schools and it gave them privacy from teachers’ supervision.
“People from other schools come to us, but they’re not allowed to enter the school premises, so we stand there [behind a bus station]” (HF2).
Boys who smoked near the bus station described the girls smoking there as “feeling unashamed” and “standing with their legs far apart [non-feminine]” (HM1) and framed smokers outside the premises as “tougher” than the others. They underscored this toughness by talking about their minor violations of the smoking rules that teachers did not sanction.
“Rules exist to be broken (…) I light a cigarette and when the bell rings and I’m not finished yet, then I walk over the [smoke-free] school premises with my cigarette” (HM1).
Other adolescents, including those who smoked only in the official smoking area, judged harshly about the boys and girls smoking outside the school premises. Individuals were described as offensive and it was generally believed that they try to “act tough in front of teachers” (HF3).
Boy1: “Simply these unmannered children”.
Boy2: “Those of the street”.
Boy2: “Yes, street scum” (HMD).
These perceptions made most smokers decide not to smoke outside the school premises, reasoning that these smokers are different and do not want to be associated with them.
“No, I don’t smoke there. There’s always these people. The tougher people” (HF4).
Lowsmoke was a school with 750 adolescents that provided full-time mid-level education. The survey showed that 29% of 3rd and 4th graders ever smoked and 3% smoked daily. Also, 52% were girls and 27% were exposed to at least one smoking parent.
Lowsmoke prohibited smoking in the school buildings and on its premises. The only area where adolescents were allowed to smoke was just outside the entrance, which everyone referred to as the gate. Smokers were only allowed to smoke at this area because Lowsmoke did not want smoking to be comfortable; there was no bench to sit or roof to shelter for rain. There was a parking lot between the gate and the school premises, physically separating smokers from non-smokers. Lowsmoke only allowed the 3rd and 4th graders to leave school premises during school hours, including free time between teaching hours that occurred due to gaps in adolescents’ timetables. This technically meant that only 3rd graders onwards were allowed to smoke during breaks and free-hours.
Adolescents at Lowsmoke perceived smoking as a norm-breaking behaviour; smokers did not feel completely comfortable smoking, and felt judged by others. We identified three shared smoking patterns that helped smokers cope with the negative judgements associated with smoking during school hours: Social bonding smoking, Low-profile smoking and Smoking-friendly event smoking.
3.2.1. Social Bonding Smoking
Where: just outside the school premises;
When: every school break;
With whom: daily smoking boys who isolate themselves as a group from non-smokers;
Why (social meaning): daily smoking is an indispensable part of their membership to a group that creates a smoking-tolerant environment.
A group of boys smoked at the gate during all school breaks. These boys were slightly older than other adolescents and explicitly positioned their group as separate from the rest; “[we] do not really engage with anyone else at school” and “absolutely do not care about what others think [of us]” (LMD). This group was difficult to join for outsiders, non-smokers in particular.
“Since a few years we have a group of friends that spend the school breaks together. A few months ago he [another student] suddenly joined us and now stands with us every time. He thinks he is part of us, but he never smokes. We all say to him ‘why are you standing here, you don’t even smoke?’. We don’t have friends standing with us that do not smoke” (LM2).
Smoking created a group vibe that does not exist without smoking. They talked about this vibe by referring to “good memories” (LM1) when they were smoking together and how these thoughts made them want to smoke in social situations.
They smoked together during school breaks because it had become a behavioural routine that was difficult to stop. Spending school breaks without smoking was not even considered an option, as they found it difficult not to smoke in the presence of their friends and were not closely befriended with most non-smokers.
Boy1: “If you chose not to smoke, you’ll be alone [without friends] in the school building as you do not know anyone.”.
Moderator: “But you could stand at the gate without smoking?”.
Boy1: “Yes that’s true, but you know.”.
Boy2: “Then you’re offered a cigarette.”.
Boy1: “That’s the danger” (LMD).
Boys smoking during free time between teaching hours was not as common as smoking during school breaks because they had different free periods due to individualized school timetables, depending on which courses they take. Smoking during school breaks was different as “you do it with everyone and so don’t have to feel alone”. (LM3) Smoking with others allowed them to hide in the crowd and therefore feel “less looked at” (LM1) like addicts.
Boy: “I don’t do that [smoking during free time between teaching hours]. Then you have to stand alone at the gate. That looks strange, really like you’re a junkie.”
Interviewer: “Why do you think so?“.
Boy: “It looks like you really cannot live without. That looks so horrible” (LM3).
Smoking almost exclusively with close friends was their way of creating a small smoking-tolerant environment in a larger smoking-intolerant school context.
3.2.2. Low-Profile Smoking
Where: first behind the flats, but since recently just outside school premises;
When: when they occasionally feel like;
With whom: girls who stand outside with their (non-)smoking friends;
Why (social meaning): smoking occasionally and only for pleasure prevents others from thinking that they are addicted or smoke to impress.
There were a few groups of girls mixed of smokers and non-smokers. Smoking was not a prerequisite for group membership; “if one of the girls smokes, the group stands outside [school premises].” (LF1) Most girls did not want to smoke every school break or free hour and only smoked when they would enjoy it. Smoking was, for instance, strongly connected to enjoying being outside, “particularly when the weather is nice.” (LF3)
“Not all of us smoke every day. You only smoke when you feel like it.” (LF2).
“I smoke only sometimes at school. I don’t have these urges where I think ‘now I need a cigarette’” (LF4).
These girls underpinned that they did not want to smoke every school break by explicitly distancing themselves from the boys that go out to smoke every school break.
Girl: “Sometimes I see the boys of our school who smoke on a regular basis. They have so much desire [for a cigarette] and when I see it, I think ‘I don’t want to be like that” (LFD).
Formerly, the girls used to walk to nearby flats as they “felt ashamed to smoke near the school gate” (LFD). These flats allowed them to smoke covertly so that fellow students and individuals passing the school would not notice them. School, however, recently prohibited them from smoking near these flats. The girls reasoned that school “purposefully decided that we are not allowed to smoke near the flats (…) they know we feel ashamed to smoke at the gate, so they think we will stop smoking” (LFD). They didn’t stop smoking and instead started smoking occasionally at the gate. The girls explicitly stressed that they, in contrast to others, don’t smoke at the gate to look cool and impress, but only smoke for authentic reasons, like for pleasure.
“You smoke for yourself, not so that everyone can see it, right?“ (LF4).
3.2.3. Smoking-Friendly Event Smoking
Where: socio-spatial environments where smoking is accepted;
When: after school hours;
With whom: anyone who is present;
Why (social meaning): feel free to smoke without risking negative social consequences.
Some adolescent smokers refrained from smoking during school hours. They were afraid that fellow students will judge them harshly if they would find out that they smoke. They preferred to smoke during smoking-friendly events as they do not have to worry about the possibility that someone will negatively judge them for smoking.
“I have friends who say they don’t smoke at school, but smoke during parties or when we sit on a terrace. They don’t feel comfortable to smoke at school” (LF4).
This shared smoking pattern was predominantly attributed to girls because their smoking during school hours was easily judged as wanting to look cool and trying to impress.
“People will think badly about you [as a girl] and say that you smoke to look cool” (LF1).
These girls therefore wanted “as little people as possible” (LF2) to see that they smoke, so that “not everybody knows about it” (LF3). Boys similarly mentioned that primarily girls experience such concerns, likely because they themselves argued not to care so much about other adolescents’ opinions.
“She has a lot of friends at school. She doesn’t want to portray a picture of herself like ‘look at me’. So she smokes, but definitely not at school.” (LM3).
Adolescents who smoked during school hours also recognized these concerns, and therefore, preferred to smoke at social events where smoking is more accepted. Such environments allowed them to smoke without having to think of others’ opinions.
“It is not that I constantly think ‘shit, these people are looking at me’ (…) but I just prefer to smoke on parties or whatever, because then it is more accepted” (LM2).