Smokers are really easy to hate, if for no other reason than that you can usually smell them from a mile away. Yet the idea persists that some people are “secret smokers” who successfully hide their smelly habit from coworkers, friends and loved ones for years, even decades, gliding through life as pretend nonsmokers, never raising suspicion.
I call BS. There is no such thing as a secret smoker, just a fake secret smoker everyone is letting pretend they don’t stink. Someone, somewhere, always knows you smoke. The question is only how long you can get away with keeping it from the people you actually love.
Of course, the internet and anecdotal accounts will tell you otherwise, but their accounts are all more or less the same in their comical dubiousness. I recently overheard a man talking at a bar about his secret smoking, who claimed that, because he gets up early before anyone else and smokes outside, then takes a shower and splits to work, he’s never been found out. In high school, I knew a guy who claimed he smoked undetected by his dad because, by holding the cigarette all the way down between the crack of his first two fingers instead of at the tip, if his dad smelled his hand he wouldn’t pick up on it. And over at The Guardian, an anonymous person in their 30s confessed recently that they’ve been a secret smoker since age 16, and that no one has ever found out.
“I wait until I’m alone,” they wrote. “Take out my packet (I keep it hidden in my car with mouthwash and mints) and have a crafty two or three.”
In movies and television, secret smokers have comically dubious tactics as well. In This Is 40, Debbie (Leslie Mann) secretly smokes out the bedroom window by wearing a towel on her head to prevent the smoke from clinging to her hair, and by donning a single yellow rubber glove on her smoking hand. After she’s finished, she eats gum, then wipes her hands and face with what looks like a personal wet wipe.
An episode of Everybody Loves Raymond called “Pat’s Secret” reveals a slightly different secret smoking approach. Pat, Raymond’s brother’s mother-in-law, is a secret smoker who admits she only smokes three a day, but when asked how she’s been able to keep it hidden all these years says, “It’s not easy. I buy my cigarettes two counties over where no one knows me.” Asked why she miraculously never smells like smoke, she replies: “I only smoke outside. I hold it downwind, and I always have plenty of mint chewing gum. In fact, Hank thinks gum chewing is my bad habit.”
The important thing to note in all these accounts of alleged secret smoking is that these people are all avoiding actual, intimate human interaction to get away with smoking. If they actually interacted with people in a way most of us would consider normal, they’d be caught. Teenagers don’t make out with their parents; husbands who sneak away before wifey gets up are avoiding intimacy as well. Longterm married couples, such as in This is 40 and Everybody Loves Raymond, are also depicted as being in fairly sexless relationships.
Stories of people who “discover” their mate has been secretly smoking support the theory that either you’re fooling no one, or your relationship with the person who thinks you don’t smoke actually sucks. A woman wrote into a Christian forum saying she found out her new husband smokes and admitted she’d smelled it before and had her suspicions, she just chose to believe his stories that he smelled smoky from being around neighbors who smoked. Another story of a woman who learned her partner is smoking again explains that he “tried to disguise it with mints” but she “smelled it off his breath.”
Another wrote into a Globe and Mail advice columnist a few years back to say she’d found out her husband has “secretly smoked” for years, and is furious. “I’m not sure how I didn’t smell it sooner,” she writes, “but it speaks to the level of skill and attention he’s paid to not being caught.”
But the columnist calls BS. Maybe you could slip a cigarette or two past someone when they’re out of town and you’re out at a party, or you came home after a late bar night where you stumble into bed and they’d already passed out. But an actual honest to God habit you actually conceal in a daily way?
“Trying to slip a smoking habit past your wife?” the columnist balks. “That’s master-class stuff. For one thing, how does he get the smoky smell past your kiss test?”
In other words, sure, you can “secret smoke” if you smoke every once in a while in a not-real way, or otherwise totally remove yourself from normal human interaction with the sort of people who would care if you were secretly smoking. But if you’re smoking and interacting with actual loved ones, barring a few extreme approaches I’ll lay out in a moment, they know you smoke. Everyone knows you smoke. Your breath stinks. Your car stinks. Your house stinks. It’s bad. You reek. You’re nose-dead to your own smoking, but no one else is. Why are you BSing?
I admire the effort of these secret smokers, but as someone who has both smoked and not smoked at various points in my life, I can attest to one thing: smelling like smoke because you just smoked is inevitable. Washing your hands after doesn’t get the smell off. Spraying perfume or hairspray only sort of masks the smell, but really just means you smell like Chanel + smoke. If you wear a jacket or outerwear of some kind that you aren’t washing regularly, it holds the smoke smell for a long time, too. And brushing your teeth or chewing mint gum afterwards will buy you a layer or two removed, but really this means you just smell like minty smoke if anyone gets close.
To fact-check this, I asked a friend who works as a tobacco treatment specialist and spends all day treating people who smoke and who know they shouldn’t. She said it’s absolutely always clear when someone smokes. “I have so many patients, majority female, who say no one knows they smoke,” she told me. “I don’t believe any of them. They smell like smoke. They think their heavy perfume and teeth-brushing covers it.”
But she posits that many of them are single and are usually referring to coworkers not knowing, so again, they don’t have intimate relationships with people who would call BS, just relationships with coworkers who wouldn’t necessarily point out that they smell bad, and with whom they risk nothing by actually smoking and just pretending not to.
Likewise, former smokers back this up. “I have so many former smokers who say they can’t believe they smelled as bad as they now smell it on others,” she told me. It’s not that no one ever told them how bad they smelled; it’s that they just believed their friends and family were being dicks at the time.
Still, forums attest to the aforementioned “master-class” smoke cover up, and even that isn’t successful. In a Marie Claire confessional about a woman who sneaks in cigarettes, the author explains this approach:
Kicking snow over my ashes, I head inside, washing my hands at the kitchen sink. In the bathroom, I spritz some lavender body spray and walk through the mist. I eat a little toothpaste, rinse, and spit. Back in the kitchen, I scoop some peanut butter into my mouth so the fumes mask the smoke. Ready for my husband’s hello kiss, I settle in next to my kids on the couch.
But she concedes that she isn’t actually fooling him. “He knew I was a sometime smoker when we met,” she writes. “Now he just pretends I don’t.”
What I will now concede is that it’s theoretically possible some people really do get away with a full-scale concealment campaign on smoking, but it’s superhuman in its requirements. To do so, you’d need to be bulletproof in your ability to pull off basically everything mentioned above every single time you take a puff, which means you can’t cherry pick some of these things, you must be devoted to all of them all of the time, relentlessly.
First, you must never smoke in an enclosed space, like your car, a smoke-friendly bar, or indoors. You’d have to hold the cigarette in favor of the wind going away from you. You’d have to wash your hands after every smoke, thoroughly, like you’re in that scene from Silkwood getting scrubbed down for decontamination.
You’d have to change your entire outfit after smoking. Then also wash any outerwear. Protect your hair from any clinging smoke particles. You’d have to bathe three times a day. Wash all fabrics you come into contact with after smoking, like your bedding, regularly. Brush your teeth constantly. Always chew gum. And ideally, wrap yourself entirely in a body-sized rubber glove so that none of your actual skin, hair or clothes ever make human contact with the smoke. Of paramount importance: Never, under any circumstances, smoke half a cigarette and then carry that half-smoked cigarette on your person for later. You’re an addict, but you’re not crazy, right?
From polling former or current smokers, they surmised that you’d probably have to smoke a maximum of three cigarettes a day, and probably wait about four hours after the last one before interacting with anyone who you’d be afraid of knowing you smoked. Those who claim to pull this off run a hardcore gauntlet of avoidance that haunts their lives and relationships like a terrible, smelly secret. But hey, still secret smokin’ right?
A final option is to vape. Vapers tell me that there is a lingering post-vape smell, but it’s not the traditional smoking smell. There’s a “vape odor,” one told me, but it’s not like tobacco. “It’s like the ozone after-rain smell, only instead of raining water it rained artificial cherry flavors.”
Of course, by the time you invest this much energy into not being caught smoking so as to not damage an interpersonal relationship you actually care about, you’ll probably realize that it’s much, much easier to simply not smoke. But since you’re a smoker, that’s highly unlikely. Alternately, just get with someone who doesn’t mind the smoking or who, for medical reasons, no longer has a sense of smell.
Of course, if you get caught anyway, you can either ‘fess up or start lying, and blame it on a smoky friend. No one will believe you, but maybe you you can preserve the fictional image you have of yourself as a secret smoker for another couple of months or years, and keep pretending you’re a breath of fresh air to the people you aren’t sleeping with.