Smoking Among Artists: Quitting Without Impacting Your Creativity

Artists might not smoke as much as some other groups, but large numbers of people in arts and design still do it. As well as causing numerous serious health problems, smoking doesn’t improve creativity and will probably increase your stress levels. For the sake of your own health and your art, quitting smoking is essential.

David Lynch, a filmmaker, musician and artist famously commented “While I was doing Eraserhead I had 40 coffees every day and I smoked 40 cigarettes.” It may just be one example, but it hits on a major theme in the issue of smoking among artists: the perception that smoking is somehow good for creativity. Most people are well-aware that smoking is an established cause of a multitude of health problems, but for artists, wistfully smoking a cigarette while pondering what to do with an empty canvas carries an undeniable aesthetic appeal. However, the reality of the situation paints a different picture entirely: smoking is not a good idea for artists.

Smoking Among Artists: How Much Do Artists Smoke?

Although studies looking at smoking rates in different occupations are quite rare, the CDC analyzed smoking rates in numerous occupations between 2004 and 2010. At the time, the smoking rate in the general population stood at 19.6 %, but this varied according to occupation. While groups like miners and those in accommodation and food services smoked at increased rates (30 % for both), artists, designers, entertainment workers, people in sports-related occupations and people in the media had a smoking rate of 14.9 %.

Other groups are included in the estimate, but this shows that artists are likely to smoke in significant numbers, although less often than the general population. Without statistics specific to artists, this is the closest we can get to a reliable estimate.

Why Do Artists Smoke Cigarettes?

The still-high rate of smoking among artists raises the question of why artists smoke at all. The truth is that the reasons artists smoke are largely similar to the reasons other people smoke. Artists are often paid when a piece of work sells rather than regularly, which can lead to fluctuating income and brings stress along with it. Cigarettes provide superficial (and short-lived) relief from this stress, so many artists will smoke for this reason. Other factors like psychological or emotional issues, as well as peer pressure and parental smoking habits, also have a role to play.

One unique factor for artists is alluded to by the David Lynch quote at the start of the post. The stereotype of the cigarette-smoking, bohemian artist puffing away while working on his or her upcoming masterpiece has lodged itself into popular culture. Although the evidence on smoking and creativity suggests the opposite (as we’ll discuss in the next section), this perception undoubtedly creates some cultural pressure to smoke for artists.

Does Smoking Improve Creativity?

The perception that smoking improves creativity isn’t supported by any hard evidence. There are plenty of anecdotes about artists who smoke, but no genuine evidence looking at creativity among ordinary people who smoke compared to non-smokers. However, other evidence strongly suggests that smoking is probably detrimental to creative work.

Smoking gives you a fast-acting hit of nicotine, but it’s “half life” (the amount of time it takes for levels in the body to halve) is very small – about two hours – so smokers light up again regularly. The problem is that in the time between cigarettes, you’re effectively in nicotine withdrawal. Your brain increasingly craves nicotine, and this process leads to difficulty concentrating. Although it shouldn’t directly affect your inherent creativity, it will make it harder to stay focused and actually produce creative work.

For the same reason, while smoking can help to cut stress just after your cigarette, withdrawal from nicotine increases stress levels. The upshot is that most smokers are more stressed than non-smokers, because they spend most of their time in nicotine withdrawal.

The Risks of Smoking and Why Artists Should Quit

So with no benefits to creativity and a detrimental effect on stress levels, most reasons for smoking among artists crumble when you examine them. Artists might not be as likely to smoke as the average American, but the ones who do smoke should seriously consider quitting.

Most people know that smoking reduces your lifespan by an average of 10 years, and causes conditions like lung cancer, COPD and heart disease, and for artists, the fact that you’ll retain your creativity and probably feel less stressed makes quitting a much more appealing prospect.

Quitting isn’t easy, but with so many forms of support available – including nicotine replacement therapies, counseling and medications – there are plenty of things you can do to give yourself the best chance of success. If you’re concerned about withdrawal or losing any benefits you perceive from nicotine use, you can also consider switching to an alternative nicotine product like snus or e-cigarettes.

Regardless of how you do it, for the good of yourself (and your art), kicking smoking should be a priority for artists.