Like love, smoking is bullshit.
Both are tied to romantic notions that rarely relate to the nasty business in its blood-pumping reality. Smoking has two ideals that suggest a surfeit of soul. One is the Parisian sophisticate, independent and alternative, a little punky. The other is pastoral and contemplative, Gandalf blowing smoke rings in Hobbiton. Neither is shivering with a greasy roll-up outside a 1970s block in the drizzle.
I started smoking because of a girl called Nicky. She was beautiful and wild at 17, with radiant green eyes that sang of the joys of class-A drugs, dancing and life lived to the fullest – even if we both worked weekends at a chain store and most of our conversations took place by a filthy coffee machine in the drab staff room. Smoking was a way to be close to her, to possess a tiny part of her, though she was in a whole other league. I started going out with a girl called Nic from the same shop, so it almost worked. From the first, smoking was linked to sex, personal connection and insecurity.
A sense of social intimacy is one of smoking’s big draws. We sell each other smoking like Jennifer Lawrence’s tits sell cinema tickets. At any club or bar the best people are outside, communing, hooking up. Cigarettes are a wing-man and a pimp. Friends who “don’t smoke” come along for the ride, sometimes literally. It’s a false sense of connection, a freemason’s lodge for dudes and dames who wear skinny black jeans. Join or be forever damned. I once read an interview with activist actor Sean Penn, where his choice of American Spirit cigarettes was reviewed in glowing terms, like a badge of his integrity. American Spirit, organic smokes, are owned by American number two RJ Reynolds, maker of Camel. And there’s an illusion, how cigarettes are promoted under the wire, used to suggest mood by lazy writers in magazines, lazy writers in film… and, ultimately, lazy fuckers incapable of portraying a creative persona without a curtain of second-hand smoke and imported wine. Smoking is identity for those without much.
For being such a symbol of independence, cigarettes profit huge multi-national groups, such as the $45-billion British American Tobacco (Lucky Strike) or the $35-billion Altria (Marlboro)… historically, not cool. For anything unshackled from Big Tobacco you have to order off the internet, such as Hestia, which are organic and brown, like slim cigars. So here’s another illusion, cigarettes benefit society’s biggest wankers. University education ought to begin: beware perverts and capitalist interests.
Since we live in a visual culture, from Instagram to IMAX, smell and taste take a back seat. No yellow fingers or bad breath. Sweat evaporates. Wounds vanish with a splash of water. Smoking is signified, fetishized with the magical click of a Zippo or the elemental crack of a match or the fizz of flame on tobacco. After Coca-Cola, Marlboro is the most recognised brand in the world. Lucky Strike’s iconography is achingly hip in an Andy Warhol kind of way. Tobacco’s startlingly persistent graphic design jostles next to health warnings that fail to steal focus. So we get distracted by glamour and truth goes to Narnia. Just like in mainstream media. Show us the Brangelina split and we happily ignore the Panama papers and Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. And who does that serve? I’m rethinking my presence at the pro-EU march. Yay, I righteously showed my support for an American-backed superstate.
Government anti-smoking ads sell on fear, raising your stress, encouraging you to reach for your tobacco. It’s like going to the airport and sacrificing one bottle of water so you can buy another after Security. Because of 9/11. Because your water might be a bomb. Because they can’t tell the difference. And you’d be a fool and a communist to think otherwise. Quit smoking, they say, turn to that other multi-billion dollar racket, the medical profession, for patches and gum… even if quitting’s as easy as understanding cigarettes are stupid and then not putting the damn things in your mouth. My biggest fear is turning into an old smoker: seven cardigans because heating burns cash, but sucking air via Benson & Hedges.
When Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco to Britain in 1565, he was met by cries of, "can you put that fucking thing out, I'm eating here". Nothing’s changed. Watch cigarette addicts: they spit the fumes out of their mouth like the conclusion to some foul bukkake. Six cups of coffee. Box set binging. Fad diets. Fad training. Pokémon GO. What is with our addiction to being addicted? Even non-smokers who don’t walk around with burning bundles of leaf carry scalding cups of coffee, as if our dependences are a groupmind dismissal of health & safety culture.
I went over to the dark side for the girls, for the punk Parisian sexiness, but weirdly the only moments I enjoyed cigarettes were at night, alone, actually looking at the places around me, bathed in streetlight that serves up an unreal, abandoned movie-set vibe. Oh, and the stars. What I like about smoking is the act of breathing. Which is what it ruins. Like spontaneous first-date sex in a park, smoking ripples with excitement, but you come home covered in muck and riddled with chlamydia. True story.