“I don’t smoke, but I enjoy watching your reviews.” Such a comment lives on almost every review posted to Nick the Smoker’s YouTube channel. As the reader has probably guessed, Nick reviews cigarettes on his channel. He has reviewed hundreds of cigarettes over the past six years, although production of new videos has slowed down recently. Nick carefully reviews each cigarette with an enthusiast’s passion but without any air of pedantry. He speaks about the draw of the cigarette, the thickness of the smoke and its smoothness, the cigarette's burn rate, and a few other details, often stopping to savor a few puffs in silence. His charming accent prevents the obligatory disclaimers about smoking “I do not encourage or discourage smoking, but if you’re going to pick up a pack…” from becoming tired. And my overall impression is that he would be a great guy to share a beer or a smoke (Heaven forbid). And I’m sure the parasocial bonds established between the viewer and the creator have more than a little to do with the success of a channel that plumbs such a niche topic. But I think there’s something else than the usual parasocial relationship going on, illustrated by the common refrain among viewers about their smoking habits.
For the viewer who doesn’t smoke, watching Nick permits the person to experience a feeling secondhand that can't be transmuted from the screen. In the same way, a person watches a cooking show even though it lacks the central sensory experiences, a person watches Nick smoking to receive the same illusory sensation. A viewer watching a cooking show might be able to summon the taste of beef in their imagination, even though it probably tastes nothing like the beef presented on-screen, but a person who has never smoked can't access this imaginative experience. Of course, they can always create a dream realm of their own, but most are content to watch someone perform something they know is dangerous. The spectators, however, do not wish to try for fear of the harm it may cause. There is a similar impulse behind the desire to watch someone compete in an extreme sport like skateboarding or snowboarding. Most people could afford to skateboard if they wished, but they’d rather watch someone risk their own body and life.
Smoking carries such strong negative associations, at least in America, that many believe inhaling a single puff from a cigarette will shorten their life by a few minutes. Never mind the pollution we inhale from car exhausts daily; or the highly processed, sugary food we consume that contributes to diabetes and the skyrocketing rates of obesity in this country. No warnings wrap the labels of most of the food stocked in grocery stores or the steering wheel of the car we drive. Lest anyone accuses me of minimizing the risk of smoking from inexperience, both of my grandmothers suffered from COPD after twenty-plus years of heavy smoking, a condition that ultimately killed them .
Statisticians may quibble over my risk assessment, but I think this evaluation method is the problem I wish to avoid. Human life has become an optimization problem, something to be solved to prolong life as long as possible. As a society, we have become obsessed with extending our lives and minimizing pain, even if we must simulate the world and restrict freedoms to do it. No one needs to pick up smoking, but perhaps we can shift our focus from observing representations to living.