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So the world's about to end, you didn't save the girl, you did but she's about to give birth, or you just had a really bad day at work. While others might be needing a freaking drink right about now, it's not going to cut it for you. What you really need is a cigarette. Possibly 20.
Stress smoking is a popular way to depict just how nervous or upset a character is, doubly so if they have previously quit and fall Off the Wagon because they cannot handle their anxiety any other way. If the only time the character lights up is when things have gone south, it's this trope. This is often spoofed in old cartoons, where a really stressed out character would be surrounded by cigarette butts, but can be used in dramatic works as well. A common method of showing stress is to show the character's shaking hands as they fumble to hold the light to the cigarette.
Anime and Manga
- In Cat's Eye, the young male detective only lights up when he's really stressed, such as when the underage youngest sister pops up in bed with him (turns out she's a sleepwalker).
- In Mens Love, Kaoru spends an entire night chain smoking in attempt to fend off an anxiety attack after Daigo's father's henchmen try to bribe him to break up and tell him Daigo is getting married. In fact, The Verse the story is set in is entirely populated by stress smokers.
- Doctor Stein in Soul Eater tends to do this when he needs to calm down. It's subverted once after his second fight with Medusa, where rather than calming down he's has a bout of Laughing Madness because of the Kisin being released. This is later exploited to frame him for the murder of BJ, by leaving a packet of his favorite cigarettes (which the local shopkeeper orders in for him specially) at the scene.
- In Wolfs Rain, Hubb takes a cigar of anxiety when he realizes he's going to die on the cliffside.
- Silk Spectre II tried to light one of these on Mars in Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan extended her air supply so she could light it.
- In Transmetropolitan , dealing with Spider Jerusalem causes Royce to smoke several cigarettes at once. On multiple occasions.
- Lucille from Sin City, after revealing to Marv that Kevin cut off and ate her hand, and made her watch, she breaks down in his arms and says that she could use a cigarette.
- In the Lost in Time Series, Terry Daniels does this when he's feeling the strain of his choices and so he smokes to try and relieve his nervousness about them in chapter ten before Frank confronts him to learn the truth about why he sided with Soto.
- This is used in 1408, the protagonist has a cigarette stored behind his ear for these types of situations.
- The baker Enzo tries to light a cigarette in The Godfather when he and Michael Corleone are guarding Vito Corleone; Enzo's hands are shaking too hard to light the cigarette, but Michael is completely calm and lights it for him.
- In the movie Children of Men, after Julian dies Theo goes to light a cigarette but ends up falling to the ground sobbing.
- In National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Clarke's wife, Ellen, begins smoking while having a minor anxiety attack in the kitchen due to the stress of her parents and Clarke's parents staying in their house. Lampshaded when her mother somehow instantly knows that she's smoking, from the other room, the instant she lights up.
- The War of the Roses starts out with Gavin smoking a cigarette that he had been keeping in a glass case for several years, vowing to never smoke again if he never smoked that cigarette. As he smokes, he tells a prospective client about why he took the cigarette out of the glass case to smoke it. Another one of his clients was Oliver Rose, who was in a Divorce Assets Conflict with his wife, Barbara. Said conflict turned nasty, including an attempt by Barbara to seduce Gavin. The stress of having Barbara come on to him and yet restraining himself from giving in stressed Gavin out so much that he smashes the glass case to get at the cigarette to smoke it.
- In Airplane!, Steve McCroskey, ground support, picked the wrong week to quit smoking (which he says as he lights up a butt). Also the wrong week to quit drinking, taking amphetemines, and sniffing airplane glue.
- In Stranger Than Fiction, Karen Eiffel has a particularly affecting scene after she might have killed Harold Crick where she tries to anxiously light a cigarette before just grabbing it and tearing it apart.
- In Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Big Russ Thompson is shown lighting up despite having quit several years before, demonstrating to the kids how worried he is about them.
- Faye Dunaway gets so nervous in Chinatown that she lights a cigarette while her previous one is still burning.
- Final Destination 2 has Ket Jennings, a nervous workaholic who smokes even when on the treadmill. When she's stuck in her car due to some logs, she lights up a cigarillo as she's waiting to be rescued.
- Used in the original The Manchurian Candidate when Marco tries to light a cigarette on a train, but is so nervous and wound-up that he keeps fumbling the matches.
- In The King's Speech, Bertie tries to have a cigarette after a particularly bad session with a speech therapist. His hands are shaking too much, though, and his wife lights it for him.
- In the American film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist is particularly stressed after losing his libel case against Wennerstrom and buys a pack of cigarettes. He lights one, and tosses the rest of the pack into the garbage.
- Before the final battle in Children of the Lens, one of the Kinnison girls is trying to chain-smoke, but is so wound up that she only manages one or two puffs before stubbing the cigarette out and lighting a new one.
- In the first Red Dwarf novel, we learn that Rimmer, a lifelong non-smoker, goes through 40 cigarettes a day when his astronavigation exams draw close.
Live Action TV
- One time on Barney Miller when Barney is passed over for promotion (again), he finds an old cigarette in his desk and smokes it. He had quit 3 years previously, and that cigarette was left over from before he quit.
Harris: You've smoked a 3-year-old cigarette?
Barney: Just wanted to make sure I didn't get hooked again.
Harris: That'll do it.
- In an episode of Clarissa Explains It All, Clarissa has a dream sequence where she finds her mother smoking like a chimney. The mother explains that she used to smoke and had quit, but that recent stress had caused her to pick up the habit again.
- The lead character of The Twilight Zone episode "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Hotel Room" tries to light up to relieve the stress of being called on to kill someone for the first time. He can't because he's out of matches. His reflection, on the other hand, happily puffs away while berating him.
- Seen occasionally on Friends. Chandler's an ex-smoker, but can be seen lighting up again in particularly stressful situations.
- Occurs in Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- In the episode "Spiral", Spike tries it. Problem is, his hands are screwed up from the fight they were just in, so Xander ends up lighting it for him.
- Reversed in the episode, "Get It Done". Spike, who has been various flavors of The Woobie throughout the first half of the season, and who has just gotten curb stomped by a demon that he needs to kill to help Buffy, goes back to an old hideout of his to retrieve his duster, before going out to fight the demon again. After he dispatches the demon, he lights up a smoke to show that He's Back to his old Badass self.
- Faith, having returned to help only to be shunned by Buffy, sneaks into the basement when the potentials get too much for her when we (and Spike) discover she has taken up smoking. This continues into the comics, where she has regressed to her earlier cynical self and smokes, needing nearly a whole pack before she is ready to assassinate a psychotic slayer. As things improve she seems to drop the habit.
- How I Met Your Mother revealed that all the main characters were heavy smokers, but because Ted is an Unreliable Narrator, he never mentioned it in the story he is telling his kids. After this revelation, smoking is not shown again in the series for a long time until a crucial episode that changes a lot of the status quo. Robin is going through a very rough time and is on the roof smoking. The implication is that it was such an important and stressful moment that Ted clearly remembered the cigarette and found it worth mentioning years later.
- On Mad Men, when Betty finally tells Don that she knows about his secret identity, not only do Don's hands shake when he lights the cigarette, he actually drops the cigarette, and Betty has to do it for him. Given how cool, calm, and confident Don had been portrayed for three years, it came off as a very dramatic moment.
- On Married... with Children, Marcy and Jefferson are visiting the Bundys when a Mall Santa dies in their backyard. While the Bundys themselves are blase about it, the D'Arcys are quite shaken and Marcy is smoking a cigarette.
- Sherlock: In "A Scandal in Belgravia", it is a sign of how anxious Mycroft is that he smokes a cigarette.
- In one episode of Band of Brothers, a dud mortar round impacts right on the edge of Sgt. Lipton's foxhole. The soldier next to him lights a cigarette and Lipton, without looking away from the shell, takes it out of his hand and has a drag. The soldier says that he thought Lipton didn't smoke.
- At the start of the Small Wonder episode "Smoker's Delight", Ted tells Joan that an efficiency expert at work has made him nervous enough to start smoking.
- Freefall: The Mayor does with with a cigar after being confronted with a difficult choice.
- Something Positive: At the end of "Dungeons & Dumbasses", Aubrey is smoking a cigarette after having to put up with Mike all night.
- Goes hand in hand with Panicky Expectant Father in Spy And Pyro, and parodied when the PEF crams his mouth chock full of cigarettes.
- In Family Guy, Brian lights up in his therapist's office.
- Disney's Goofy has been known to do this in some of the older cartoons featuring him.
- Done in an exaggerated manner by a rooster waiting for his death by axe in the morning in a Merrie Melodies cartoon. He has a conveyer belt set up to repeatedly bring a cigarette to his lips so he can kill it in one drag before the next arrives.