In Defence of Smoking
Of all my flaws, smoking is my favourite.
Peeling from the easy chair, I’ve had enough of reading — the time for taking in words is through — better to put pen to paper and forge something for all to flavour and forget. It’s a short stroll to the desk, same routine, chair out, crack the shutters, sit down. The sun has turned in, yet in the early weeks of the year that spells only the start of the spaced out nameless hours before any time worth caring about. The hours under the rational hand of caffeine are through, I need to change my poison. Draining the dregs of last night’s efforts, I commence afresh. A new day, a new bottle, a new journey into the honeyed madness of freedom from the senses. Riffling through an army of notes, novels and nameless jottings-never-developed – my hand embraces the leathery shell of a weathered matchbox. The record skips as the bittersweet smell of a fresh pouch of tobacco mingles with its musty surroundings. I’m proud of my packing as I pull the pipe to my lips, all three stages executed with rare precision. I fumble into a false light, drag, and let the embers wither as the body of warmth works down to the core. Then I light for good — the tang of tobacco tickles my tongue. The taste and the heat are tinder to the sparks in my mind. The room clouds to a yellowish haze, as I litter with words the pages before me.
Yet believably false. In truth, I’m in the Rootes grid. The aroma is not the burning of amber leaves but that of sweat, disappointment, and the sour chive sandwich spilt onto my workspace by the internship hunting sniffler next to me. The shrill wail of the ventilation system is tortuous; surely this drill of ill-oiled equipment is far more pertinent to my health that the clean air it supposedly provides?
I want to escape and smoke, but the sordid pack of Slovakian imports sits firmly in pocket for now. I haven’t the heart to waste one, for what? A small diversion to a squalid pissy corner of campus for a solo drag in the cold February night? What, I wonder, is the foundation for the closing of this pleasurable outlet? Permit me to posit my view; there’s no solid reason not to embrace smoking, and smokers, into your life.
Imagine Hepburn or Dylan without the cigarette — without the fire they lose the flame.
One reason for this I’ve already touched upon, smoking is cool, I’m sorry — I know from birth you’ve been conditioned to say the contrary — you may even add á chacun ses gôuts, and I may be inclined to agree with the latter. But then I ask you to imagine Hepburn without the cigarette holder, or Dylan, with his anarchic tangle of hair and sunglasses — but minus the stub of a dying smoke — without the fire they lose the flame. Would Kelseys not be far less of a sclerotic afterthought of a bar if it had the added effect of a hanging fog of mysterious smoke
From this connection with death smoking gets its transgressive aesthetic.
But why do we find smoking so cool? One postulation would be that smokers are people who have clearly endured exposure to every authoritarian source telling them what and whatnot to put in their bodies, and in taking up tobacco, raised a middle finger to prying powers. I can’t imagine anyone truly thinks that ‘smokers’ (I hate even using that term, as if giving them a label makes it easier to collectivise and denigrate what is fundamentally a group of human beings), aren’t aware that with their puffing they are knocking minutes from their lives by turning their lungs black with tar. But it’s from this connection with death that smoking derives its transgressive aesthetic. It is this power over what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that flavours the intangible allure of flying in the face of utility. Perhaps it’s fitting that the earliest account of smoking in Europe is attributed to Rodrigo de Jerez, a crewmate of Columbus — he was found with what was believed to be the devil’s fire flaring from his mouth and nostrils, and consequently beaten and jailed for seven years.
Be careful not to die decades before you enter the dirt.
Then let’s juxtapose this conception with the converse, the ‘antitabagists’. Why is it that health fanatics seem to be so adept at draining you of the force they fight to defend? One the one hand, the battle against the power to puff is fought by the Gillian McKeiths of the world, the freedom hating hags of health, who all the while giggle with glee as you empty your pockets on some rip-off quinoa equivalent that they’re selling. On the other, it’s the fag-hating despots: James I, Napoleon, Hitler, your mother.
For me, anyone who is keen to tell you what you should and shouldn’t put in your mouth, can be carefully clumped into the category of uncool.
And as for the live and let live liberals in the middle. I implore, do as you please, of course, but be careful not die decades before you enter the dirt. Something’s got to kill you. They say cigarettes will kill me, but they won’t say when. What’s more, when trying to eke out a few extra hours at the tail end of one’s existence, you may lose track of an essential wisdom — an awareness firmly in the minds of the ancients; from The Buddha to Nietzsche via the Wisdom of Silenus we see the eternal recurrence of an irrepressible idea; life is suffering, rationalisations away from this, at best, flattering illusions. Cigarette in hand, the smoker leaps on the back of the blind restless beast of existential suffering — and grants an unequivocal fuck you to the world that says you must torture yourself to prolong the Socratic sickness of life. If you’re going to have vices, at least make them enjoyable.
Of all my flaws, smoking is my favourite.
Enjoyment; that leads me to the next point. Of all my flaws, smoking is my favourite. A cigarette can start a conversation, add character to a barroom, enhance a moment, relieve anxious clatterings of the mind, call for a reflective pause, and I daresay taste pleasant. People shell out what they do for good reason.
Pleasure isn’t everything, my next defence is a touch harder to quantify. The community of people who have taken the leap into the arms of big baccy’ exist in a strange state of solidarity beyond the conventional world of input, output, production, payment and exchange that characterises the modern world. Rather, in smoking, we see the peculiar levelling force of having all walks of life congregate into the few foetid corners that society permits them — to share lights, smokes and words. Where else would it be ordinary to see a broker ask a builder for the favour of a fag? Perhaps this is threatened by iterative excessive tax drives. Yet even the collective shunning faced by each individual present in a smoking circle provides a small flare of comradery. Smoking is one of the few remaining gift economies — a paradise being elsewhere lost.
I’m no salesman, that’s enough on why one may wish to pick up a habit, now to tackle the true behemoth, to cut through the smokescreen of shit surrounding cigarettes. I’ve alluded to the first; habits — habit forming — and the big one, addiction. As a spotty pubescent adolescent I was warned that, not only would smoking cost me £20,000 a year (apparently enough for a Speedboat), it would only take three cigarettes until I’m hooked for life. And why risk three? After all, one will lead to another, and that’ll lead to another, and gasp, the steel hook of Imperial Tobacco will pierce my cheek and reel me into the family destroying dark world of addiction.
Strangely, caffeine is something I do find incredibly habit forming.
Perhaps it’s just me, but a few hundred smokes in and I still couldn’t call myself an addict. I don’t smoke as many days as I do, and, if I haven’t the cash nor the fitting milieu, I can go weeks at a time without a single drag. Equally, in the caffeinated haze (strangely, caffeine is something I do find incredibly habit forming) of essay deadline season, putting away a pack a day is no surprising feat. In Junky: The Definitive Texts on Junk, William S. Burroughs extends this insight even to heroin, certainly one can become addicted, but it requires a fairly intense programme of forging a habit over a matter of months. The same can be said of many of life’s other peculiarities — hell, there was a time in my life when two or three days without taking a run would drive me to the bounds of sanity. As such, I suggest that addiction is what you make of it — if you’re a neural conservative desperate to drop daily traditions into your life, traditions you only relinquish with agonising recalcitrance, then perhaps smoking isn’t for you. Conversely, if you have a level head, then you shouldn’t let a fear of yourself stand in the way of filling it with smoke.
A quick tipple to tackle: the environment. You’re told from time to time as a smoker that not only are you pumping fumes into our clogged air, but also you are consuming tracts of land that could otherwise be feeding the world. For the former, the greenhouse effect of smoke is of course negated by photosynthesis in the tobacco plant. Any malign effects come from transportation, production and packaging – a point I’ll deal with soon. As for land use, come back to me when you’ve cut meat from your diet. Vegetarian? Fine, come back to me once you’ve lobbied your government to cut biofuel subsidies. Activist too? Okay, a) go out and live your life, b) convert your (let’s face, likely ample; sanctimonious behaviour like yours can only come from a background of privilege) lawns into arable land and stop telling everyone what to do with their lives. However, the silver bullet in this argument comes not from such pedants, but the frank truth that smokers simply don’t live as long as non-smokers. So in your last few years of blasting your beamer down the city streets, we’ll be peacefully feeding the worms, and you’ll make up the lost ground in no time.
While we’re working through the low hanging fruit, how about the second hand effects. I hope it should suffice for me to say that, if you ask me not to harm your health with my fumes, I’d ask you not to drive down streets where pedestrians wander, not to get out the charcoals for a barbeque every time the sun peeks through the oppressive grey skies of the midlands, not to gather others around your adorable camping bonfire, and most importantly, keep your moralistic rants to yourself — you’re doing things to my blood pressure no Marlboro red could ever fix.
Oh, but I hear you say, don’t you realise how much you dirty smokers cost the NHS? £2 billion every year. Why should my tax money be spent scraping tar from the lungs of people who have forced their illness upon themselves? Why don’t smokers pay their own way?
Smokers pour a cool £12.3bn into government coffers.
Well, kindly, they do. Between £9.7 billion generated in excise duty, and £2.6 billion generated in VAT, smokers pour a cool £12.3 billion into government coffers. You know what that makes us? Public servants! People to be loved, not loathed — kissed, not killed — respected, not resented. Smokers should be sacrificial Gods amongst men, not spurned and despised! Consequently, I could politely rephrase the question; why should my tax take be spent funding your sorry arse after you call 999 every time a bad kebab gives you the shits?
I’ll ignore your unethical consumption if you ignore mine.
How about a serious target, the corporate monsters that provide the cigarettes. The tobacco companies have been (justly) accused of everything from forcing children to work in the fields, suppressing scientific publications, casting their undue influence on democratic giants, targeting children where regulations are looser, and treating their low down workers like living machines. I shan’t dodge the matter, big tobacco is a detestable industry. Yet before you scroll down to comment your moral victory, I could bring to light one defensive example. The IPhone in your pocket has a string of dirty secrets: the coltan in its processor is almost certainly sourced from mines in the remote east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – where young children toil in mines for 12 hours daily, all to finance the mine owning warlords in their programme of extortion, rape, and murder, as they jostle amongst themselves for control a considerable chunk of the war torn nation. This blood stained coltan is then shipped north to the industrial nowhere of central China, where the monotony of assembly has driven so many of the emaciated quasi-slaves to try and end it all that the Apple factories have resorted to erecting suicide nets. Apple may well be the richest company in the world, but life is ugly at the bottom of the ladder. What point am I trying to prove? That in the game of post-modern Capitalism, nearly every product has a dirty past. Unless you’re truly going to stand up and fight the system, what do you say we make a truce? I’ll ignore your unethical consumption if you ignore mine? If not an outright victory, we can at least call that point a draw.
Without the taxes, you could smoke a pack a day and not meet the cost of a lump of tofu.
Which leaves but one more point that to my mind I must rebut. The cost of smoking. There’s no dancing around the point that in the UK, dragging on the tangy haze of tobacco is conducive to both a sore throat and an empty wallet. When pushed for money, are there not far more fruitful products to drain your savings into? Yet I throw the burden of explanation here back to society at large. That is because smoking is not expensive, but the tax is. A pack would be £2-£4 were it not for the more-than-a-little on the side that works its way to Osbourne. Without tax, you could smoke a pack per day and not meet the cost of a lump of tofu. Were society not to overplay the externalities of smoking, as well as force smokers into a life of liminality, then the regime wouldn’t come at such a cost. The problem is entirely contingent, not necessary — come the revolution in society’s smoking sentiments, such an issue will be shown vacuous.
We arrive then at the point in this article where I question the purpose of my argument. To create a new wave of smoking recruits? God no, whilst I wouldn’t be sorry for the added company on smoking excursions, it’s not my place to tell you what to do. Rather my hope is to make you reassess your attitudes on the group that society has conditioned you to fear and despise, and perhaps even garner an emotion of respect for smokers, not the crazed amalgam of terror and pity that presently exists.
As it stands, the grid is now closing up. The careerists, the swotters, and last-minute slackers alike pack up their books and prepare to make the march back. Ready to endure the cycle once more tomorrow. As for me, I’m off to colour the night air with enigmatic clouds of tobacco.