Smocking Hot No More

The nanny state may be winning the war on cigarettes, but the glamorous allure they once held is much missed

By Constance Watson

April 26 2019

Now that it’s only marginally more acceptable than public nudity or robbery, it’s almost strange to think that smoking was once thought to be elegant, glamorous, and even necessary. Its trajectory from sexy to sickening has had one side effect: those of us that are still at it, love it. We are dedicated, determined and stubborn. We battle the elements in our resolve to satiate ourselves with nicotine.

We are united: we feel victimised by the state’s determination to control our simple pleasures. And we are, of course, unhealthy. But we are happy to sacrifice our health at the altar of short-term enjoyment.

My first memories of smoking as a part of life are as a child attending church: the minute Mass ended, the grown-ups would dive towards the open air – just about overtaking the priest in their haste – in order to spark up and chat in the graveyard. To my five-year-old self, smoking seemed, like God, to be one of the key components of life. It added to the gaiety of nations and it kept the grown-ups jolly. There was never any question, nor discussion – as far as I could see – about giving up. However, the pious five year old fast became a fascist. By about ten, I was stealing my mum’s cigarettes and dipping them in lemon, in a bid to prevent her smoking. But by 14 I was hard at it, seizing any chance to pounce on a neglected packet of fags. Part of the fun was hiding the evidence: rosemary became a fragrant favourite. A cousin once convinced me to lick a bar of soap which, needless to say, didn’t have the desired effect.

Today, I spend more time thinking about giving up than I do smoking. I’ve read Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, which has helped over 30 million people in 50 countries quit without nicotine replacement – but not this fool. Substitutes haven’t worked either. Cold turkey renders me friendless. One day I will stop. The problem is, I love it.

"Cold turkey renders me friendless. One day I will stop. The problem is, I love it."
"Cold turkey renders me friendless. One day I will stop. The problem is, I love it."

There was a time when we were encouraged to smoke. Sex icons on the silver screen were weak and feeble without a cigarette between the lips. Hello Marlon Brando, Hello James Dean. There was Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes and giving one to Bette Davis, in 1942’s Now, Voyager, before asking ‘May I sometimes come here? And smoke a cigarette with you and sit in understanding silence?’ Or think of Audrey Hepburn, iconic with her cigarette in its long holder in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Even in the 1990s, Uma Thurman stared seductively from the Pulp Fiction poster, her features bordered by white plumes of smoke from a perfectly held ciggie.

Smoking is hardly seen onscreen now, and naturally, a quick google search reveals that there are numerous fun-sponges campaigning for smoke-free movies because, supposedly, “smoking in the movies accounts for 37% of all smoking initiation.”

The government’s attempts to encourage us to quit have been pretty successful. In the UK, smoking is at an all-time low, with only 17 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women confessing their habit, the majority of whom (60 per cent) say they want to quit.

This is arguably the result of what the government calls ‘action to reduce smoking,’ but what could also be called ‘incessant bossing.’ It’s been a long time coming. In 1965 the British government banned television advertisements of cigarettes, though in didn’t ban smoking on the Underground until 1987.

Now, it’s 12 years since the ban on smoking in public places, prices have hiked up to as much as £14 for a packet of 20, about 82 per cent of which is taxed. Cigarette packets are no longer decorated, and are instead made in standardised black, emblazoned with violent pictures of sorry looking individuals, their smoking-induced maladies in close-up, and terrifying health warnings about blocked arteries, cancer and blindness.

We are also entering the age of the vape, or the e-cigarette: battery-powered objects that mimic smoking, supply nicotine but do not contain tobacco. A study at the beginning of this year found that smokers who ditch fags in favour of vaporisers are more likely to succeed in quitting than if they use old-school nicotine substitutes like gum or patches.

My personal favourite among the vape brigade is the elegant Juul, which looks like a USB stick, tastes almost as good as the real deal, and is inexpensive to top up.
It’s obvious, then, that the halcyon days (to some of us, anyway) of chain smoking are over and gone. The Nanny State has won. Somehow, though, I don’t believe that Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn et al would have looked so good with a Juul.