This qualitative study explored how young people (16- to 24-year olds), both smokers and non-smokers, talk about the social role of smoking in their everyday lives. In 22 focus group interviews, 47 high school children and 40 university undergraduates participated. On the basis of analyses, it is proposed that the perceived need to smoke cannot be reduced to addiction; cigarettes appear to play a complex social role in young people's lives. In order to resist smoking, participants highlighted the need to provide an excuse to peers, and some reasons (e.g. an interest in sport for boys) were considered more legitimate than others. Cigarettes (certain brands) were also claimed to be used as a way of controlling other people's perception of smokers, and also to serve as a social tool (for instance, to fill in awkward gaps in conversation). Additionally, smoking was argued to be subject to context (e.g. some schools possess a pro-smoking ethic, while others and universities are anti-smoking). Finally, it was claimed that stopping smoking is difficult since all of the foregoing social factors cannot easily be avoided. The findings of this study compliment and enrich existing social psychological approaches to smoking in young people, and lay the basis for anti-smoking campaigns which take into account the complex social role cigarettes play in the lives of young people.