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A SMOKING GLUM January 28, 2010

Posted by markswill in Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.

 Suppering with a friend not seen since she moved abroad over a decade ago found me in Shepherds Bush last week with four other acquaintances not seen for even longer, and an evening of bawdy gossip and cheerful reminiscing. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the evening was that everyone at the table was unselfconsciously smoking and had I brought a cigar with me, I’d have joined them. Just like the old days in fact, before social smoking confirmed pariah status on anyone who inhaled. We’d all put on a few pounds since we’d met, but there we all were in our early sixties in pretty good health and indeed looking it, and whilst I have also lost friends to cancer and have a couple more currently battling it – smokers both – I am not a nicotine nazi when it comes to what others inhale.

As I swayed uncertainly back to Goldhawk Road tube station I got to thinking that if the anti-smoking lobby had their way, and that nominally includes a government primarily concerned with the cost of smoking-related diseases, then how would the social landscape look? Would there be a black market in Silk Cut? Would drug dealers turn to Chinese-made Camel Lights to keep them in tinted-windowed Range Rovers? And would hardened nicotinies furtively puff away behind the blacked out windows of tobacco shebeens?

Well since New Zeeland is about to impose such a ban on its citizenry, we shall soon undoubtedly see, but what we already know is that the pub and club trade has suffered enormously since the ban on smoking in public places came into being. This has had a clear effect on drink sales and helped augured the supermarkets’ cheap booze promotions which in turn fuelled so much anti-social behaviour. It also means fewer people socialising in pubs – a bad thing in my view – which in turn accelerated if not directly caused the closure of many of them and ergo, reduced the tax revenues on booze.

And this is where it gets interesting. Irrespective of that specific loss to the exchequer, according to the Tobacco Manufacturers Assoc. if tobacco sales were banned outright, the exchequer would’ve lost £10billion in tax revenues last year. And yet according to the NHS, the annual cost of treating smoking related ailments is £2.7b. Do the math and you realise that if smoking were banned outright the economy would suffer tremendously, and never mind the cost of providing benefits to all those unemployed tobacco industry and NHS staff. Get the picture?


When I started blogging early last year I determined not to make it too personal but  having since scanned a few other people’s digital efforts, such social rectitude might seem unduly high minded. So without wishing to drag my reader too deeply into my personal hell, and a’propos the wider benefits of gaspers, I should say that with one exception during this past thirty years every one of my girlfriends, or ‘partners’ as those of us of a certain age must now describe them, has been a smoker. I used to observe that the way most women held and smoked their ciggies was part of their allure, but since some of my female friends have succumbed to cancer in recent years and I began encouraging at least my last two ex-, erm, partners to cut down on their habit, it’s become prudent not to articulate such views.

By a similar token in recent months I’ve found myself defending my inability to hold down a relationship for more than three years, usually to women who for some absurd reason had ‘taken a shine’ to me (I do love the quaint sophistry of that phrase). Hardly considering myself an emotional cripple or commitment-phobe – although of course I may be both – I’ve put it down to self-preservation under private duress that led my then partners to cut things off at the pass, or maybe I’m just a lousy lover and a selfish old sod. But I think the truth of it is that having lived on my own for so long I have become, to quote Richard Ford, “so absorbed with how exact segments of time are consumed (yet) can begin to feel a pleasure with life that is hopelessly tinged with longing”.


But longing for what, my friendly female interrogators might (and do) ask? Well fairly obviously there’s the next vocational goal, the next rendezvous with (possibly smoking) friends, the next trip on a balmy summer’s day in the Lancia (now that really is a longshot), the next gobsmacking show at Tate Modern and on and on it goes, this litany of small pleasures. But the easy and hopefully unfettered shared intimacy which is of course a major virtue of a relationship is pretty much possible with friends of long standing who you’re not sharing a bed with, and it’s these relationships which I realise I cherished more than those that left the rails after some barely articulated loss of trust, lust or whatever it is that love actually is.

Heavy going is not what I intended when I began this latest scribble, but having seen a trio of films up in town which sorely questioned whether loving partnerships can ever be permanent (The Road, A Serious Man, It’s Complicated), and had my battered old Yamaha stolen and vandalised outside my temporary digs, I am momentarily feeling a tad dubious about the innate goodness of the human condition. So much so, I rather feel like remedial Marlboro Light.

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1. Neil Murray - January 28, 2010

Heh. I enjoyed that. I’m a non-smoker, but when I see the pleasure it gives to those so addicted, who am I to rant at them?

When the company I worked for during the 1990s was taken over by the Daily Mail Group (as nasty a bunch of arseholes as I’ve ever encountered), they announced they’d be polling staff as to whether or not to make the offices non-smoking. This being DMG, they only polled the non-smokers. As my much-liked and much-respected ad lady had a two-packs-of-B&H-per-day habit, and as I rather objected to the mechanics of the poll, I voted to keep the offices a smokers’ environment. I was later collared by a disapproving DMG suit, who asked me did I know that I was the only non-smoker who’d voted against the proposed ban?

Screw ’em.

Incidentally, the mathematics of what smokers contribute to the NHS and how treating them costs much less than the revenue they raise, formed part of the plot of an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’, many moons ago.

And now I read that cigarette smoking scenes are being edited from some old films. Amazing how life imitates art, because this was predicted in an Arthur Clarke novel maybe 20 years ago (how prescient he was!). I think it was Imperial Earth, but am open to correction.

Let’s fact it, nobody elevated smoking to an art form higher than Bogart & Bacall. Marvellous.

2. Tom Stewart - January 28, 2010

I don’t think NZ will be completely tobacco-free for another 10 years, if at all, but one pretty definite outcome of any total ban will be a huge increase in black marketeering, which would mean cheaper but dodgy fags cut with Christ knows what, which in turn would lead to even more complex health problems, for which the government wouldn’t have smokers’ tax revenue to pay for. And while all that’s going on the black marketeers will grow in number, become super-rich and plough their huge profits into expanding activities that the cops, courts and even society is already struggling to contain.

Still, I’m sure the ban smoking lobby knows what’s best for all of us.

PS. Hi Neil!

Neil Murray - January 28, 2010

Hi. Tom! What are doing these days?

3. Pete - January 28, 2010

As a non-smoker I do like the fact that I can go to the pub and not have the fact indelibly recorded by a liberal dose of nicotine in my hair and clothes, not to mention the sore eyes, but each to his own and I wouldn’t support a total ban.

What interests me is how the ban on smoking in the workplace and other venues has affected social relationships. The loose knots of people outside buildings having a ciggie are often, it seems, quite random, with folk from all strata of society or occupation thrown together by the common denominator of the habit. Conversations, albeit often short, are struck up over a shared lighter or match and I fondly imagine that people who might otherwise never even look at each other are drawn into cordial contact as a result. That’s got to be a good thing I would have thought.

Neil Murray - January 28, 2010

DMG, bless their little cotton socks, were contemplating making the smokers work half an hour longer each day because it was ‘unfair’ that they should be able to take smoke breaks and the non-smokers didn’t. Nothing ever came of it, which is a shame, because it would have been funny to watch them being hung out to dry by an employment tribunal.

And I agree: the smokers’ circle (outside the office, round the corner of the building) is my present company’s ‘fast set’, I think. Certainly almost convivial enough to make me fancy tagging along with a small cigar.

4. Alex Ramsay - January 28, 2010

Very concerned to hear that one of your partners has cut things off at the pass – I suggest you seek medical advice urgently

5. Cliff - January 28, 2010

More people collapse of heart attacks outside Gyms than ever do outside pubs and fish & chip shops

6. Paul N. Blez - January 28, 2010

I’m a non-smoker who’s been known to have the odd cigar, although I’ve cut down even on that occasional indulgence since discovering, in the middle of a Libyan rally in 2006, that I was suffering from high blood pressure. I have mixed feelings about the smoking ban, but overall think it was a good thing. It’s a real shock now to go into a smoke-filled hotel or restaurant, such as can still be found in Switzerland, for example. Ever since doing a (published) project at university on smoking I’ve regarded it primarily as an addiction to nicotine comparable to other addictions, to cocaine, heroin or indeed, alcohol. And it can certainly be as hard to ‘kick’ as any of the foregoing. I am dismayed that my partner’s 19 year old son seems to be completely ‘hooked’ by the dreaded weed because he’s a very bright lad and I fear it will blight his life and almost certainly shorten it. And surely that is the reason that a complete ban on smoking might cost the NHS more than it saves – because smokers save them a fortune by dying at a prematurely young age? FWIW I think I’m in favour of the new ban on advertising and fag machines that’s just become law in Scotland, but not an NZ-style ban. PNB

7. George Snow - January 28, 2010

In order to reduce obesity amongst the teenage girls of England I suggest you ask parliament for smoking to be made compulsory for all girls above the age of 13.

While you are gathering support for the lobby check out’ Les Femmes aux Cigarettes’ by Lartique. Available from Amazon at this URL http://www.amazon.com/Femmes-aux-Cigarettes-Jacques-Henri-Lartigue/dp/0670311553

8. Ian Powis - January 28, 2010

Nah, sorry Mark, can’t agree. I think the smoking ban has been a great success and wouldn’t want to go back to having to sit in a smoke filled pub. If folks don’t spend their money on fags then they will spend it on something else so where’s the overall harm to the economy? and it will still raise tax revenue whils reducing the NHS spend – although this is a dangerous argument because what’s the next logical step – ban alcohol because it makes people fight and the NHS has to put them back together, ban cars because they cause accidents? I think the clean pub air environment is good enough for me. With regards to pub closures, most of them that have closed around us have done so because they were … well, extremely badly run. I can’t believe how badly in some cases. The good pubs, either those serving food or just those serving beer (and it is possible to have a profitable pub without food even in the country) are busy. Anyway with a Gamma to run I’m surprised you’ve got enough spare cash for fags!

9. markswill - January 28, 2010

Gratifying slew of comments so early in the day – well technically speaking as it’s now 23:30hrs – late in the day, although I can’t (obviously) agree with all of ’em. Ian’s arguments are interesting but confusing as he seems to be agreeing that banning things because they bleed the taxpayer (who of course may be one of the ‘culprits’) doesn’t make sense but then claims that banning smoking may be a Good Thing. Also I, and more relevantly, my local landlord, stridently disagree that the ban only adversely affected pubs’n’clubs that were badly run anyway… but then I always rather enjoyed smoky bars even though these days I only puff the odd cigar and even odder ciggie. He’s right about the Gamma though: I couldn’t afford to be a proper smoker again unless I flog the Lancia.

Hitherto 40-a-day man George’s waspish advocacy of forcing girls to start puffing at age 13 is of course typically perverse but he has a point: it could reduce teenage pregnancies (go figure, mind). And do please check out his weblink – brilliant stuff!

Otherwise I remain interested and challenged, so keep ’em coming please.

10. Martin Craig - January 29, 2010

Very mixed feelings here, Mark. In the last few years, asthma made singing in smoky venues almost impossible for me, so the ban was a great help. Funny though, that when smoking was ubiquitous it didn’t bother me in the least, but now the merest whiff of second hand smoke sends me into a choking fit.

Now many venues are less than half full & the ban is being blamed, but the current laws on public performance, rising fuel costs & the ‘big night in’ culture are equal disincentives – and the breweries aren’t helping by rebranding once-classic old bars as chrome’n’glass yoof-oriented theme pubs.

In my long-gone riot-zone public health days, I argued in several documentaries along the lines of “If you (the interviewer) lived here, you wouldn’t just smoke, you’d need heroin to get through your day”. That got me disowned by NHS colleagues who were killing time until retirement by pushing ‘smoking cessation kits’, relaxation tapes featuring females impersonating Patricia Hewitt MP at her most patronising and ‘Beating Heart Disease’ leaflets in which gleeful white middle-class nuclear families in blue track suits leapt into the air as if auditioning for a Beatles film poster.

Meanwhile, the locals would look at these artefacts in disbelief; saying that, for them, smoking was 100% a mental health issue; all about self-esteem, handling stress, body image, getting by.

A bloke called ‘Big Wayne’ (honestly) was revered in the way Battle of Britain pilots used to be for having done a daylight ram-raid on a Currys store, all captured on CCTV (including his personal victory roll, a V-sign at the camera). A few years later and into his thirties, Wayne settled down and became a successful & fairly wealthy cigarette smuggler, and his local rep shifted from war-hero to Robin Hood. “More demand & less risk” was his rationale. He’d be proud to know he’s doing his bit to reduce obesity in 13+ females in his patch.

But then, cognitive dissonance rears its muddled head. Yesterday, there was a Chet Baker programme on R4 & I was ranting that a night at Ronnie Scott’s could not be complete without a small Cohiba or Romeo y Julieta. Another pleasure outlawed.

About the only thing I can say for sure about tobacco is that NO country has ever successfully got rid of it and that, however draconian the punishment (slitting smokers’ nostrils? Beheading? – ok, that did work for the individual amputee) NO authority has ever successfully controlled it.

And is it really true that smoking scenes are being cut from old films? So when Guy Gibson whistles his dog in The Dam Busters, will they overdub, “African American, here boy!”? It’s bad enough that I’m too intimidated to sing “Good Morning’ Little Schoolgirl” in public any more, for fear of ending up on some lifetime register.

Don’t let me say it – it’s too corny – you can’t make me – oh, damn! “It’s political correctness gone ma….

11. WTK - February 3, 2010

Smoke smoke that cigarette. Time that the world fessesup to the hard fact that fat people cost the health system more than smokers. I am an anti fatty campaigner. Let’s do the right thing and render suet.

12. Ian H - February 6, 2010

I run hot and cold with this. I share Blez’s frustration as I have had a similar experience with my 19 year old. However the arrival of a young Doxy on the scene who quickly professed to not liking to snog somebody who smelt like an ash tray had far more sway than any amount of parental pressure.
True its more pleasant going to gigs now and I do like to drink in a smoke free room. However I cannot see why pubs should not be allowed to have “smoke rooms”. Having smoked for a while and enjoyed the odd cigar with Mr Murray, some were very odd, I see no need to totally ban the process when a minimal amount of creative thought could have found a way to deal with the issue without the legions of snoutcasts you see outside most public buildings.

My real concern is purely focussed on my own wallet, if the incendiary tax payments cease then the legion of dual standard fiddlers in Westminster will find another way of collecting money. Selfish I know but i do feel I am paying for enough duck houses already.

13. Frank Westworth - February 9, 2010

Being brung up a Roman Catholic, and therefore being instilled with heroic levels of self-loathing and guilt from Day Zero, I have of course never been a smoker. Worse than that; I too played countless smoking men’s clubs and the like, which produced such a thirst that I stopped eating for a while and only drank cider. Which irretreivably altered my song writing skills, made me slosh amusingly as I walked … or indeed waddled about the place and ensured a faintly successful sort-of career in publishing.

I therefore owe everything to all those kindly puffers. Thank you thank you every one. Carry on chuffing, chaps. Ban the ban, as we wannabee fox hunters might say. Or indeed ignore it, as appears to be the way round these parts…

14. Tony Sleep - February 12, 2010

Belatedly… but. The biggest saving of all to the Government (and its non-smoking taxpayers) is that smokers tend to die younger and quicker. Instead of gradually fading away over 20 years of costly, multiple and chronic health problems in a £1000/week residential home, we snuff it relatively cheaply. Cancer, emphysema and heart attacks are really not that bad compared to 2 decades of drooling in front of Trisha. Everybody does eventually die of something, and only the lucky few go out pleasantly in their sleep.

There is after all a pensions crisis, and Gordon should be handing out Capstan full strength along with the free bus pass.

But the bigger problem, is that having ceded HMG the right to tell us how to live and die, we are already seeing alcohol being pushed along the exact same curve as fags were. First the insistence that something must be done to address the dire social consequences and medical costs. Next the ramping up of tax from merely punitively greedy to shameless robbery for our own good. And when that doesn’t work, and the endless health lectures fall on deaf ears, a growing call for not just an end to cheap (hah!) alcohol, but an end to alcohol altogether.

Next it will be foods associated with obesity. Chips, curries, English breakfasts will become criminal backstreet caffs only.

Well, you daft smug puritanical bastards, you did it to yourselves. I predict with confidence that within 15 years, all you’ll be able to do in a pub is drink organic smoothies and munch lettuce and feel guilty. Enjoy the Jeremy Kyle and Top Gear re-runs you’ll be living to suffer decades of at your childrens’ expense. I for one will have fucked off and died.

markswill - February 12, 2010

Tony may be fashionably late with his comments, but he doubtless used his time wisely: everything he observes and posits is of course horribly true. Oh why-oh-why-oh-why didn’t I move to that third floor apartment I bought off-plan in Gran Canaria 15 years ago?

15. Paul N. Blez - February 12, 2010

Tony S said:
“Smokers tend to die younger and quicker”.
Younger, definitely, but quicker? Not necessarily. Evidence?
“Instead of gradually fading away over 20 years of costly, multiple and chronic health problems in a £1000/week residential home, we snuff it relatively cheaply. Cancer, emphysema and heart attacks are really not that bad compared to 2 decades of drooling in front of Trisha.”
Sounds like a classic case of “smoker’s wishful thinking” to me, Tony.
“Everybody does eventually die of something, and only the lucky few go out pleasantly in their sleep”.
Can’t disagree with that. I hope that by the time I’m so decrepit that I feel life is not worth living any more I will have access to a quick and painless passing, pausing only to attend my own wake/memorial before I hit the ‘Goodbye’ button.
The truth about smokers, in my experience, is that not only do they (on average) live significantly shorter lives than non-smokers, but that their final years before their ultimate demise are actually *more* filled with suffering and misery, not less. Thanks to things like debilitating strokes, emphysema, amputations and so forth.
Smokers have far more ‘chronic health problems’ than non-smokers. So they just get the miserable, declining years at a younger age, when the rest of might still be enjoying life, and they are likely to be more miserable, for longer, than non-smokers.
Of course, I never expected to make it past 30, so I’ve been on bonus time for over 20 years already!

16. Tony Sleep - February 18, 2010

Evidence : I know a Sussex hospital doctor and that’s what he says. Lung cancer tends to be all over in 18m, and heart disease from smoking is much accelerated over most non-smokers’ steady degeneration. Once a smoker keels over from something nasty, they don’t generally last >5yrs, and often <2. He dislikes smoking plenty, but says the costs have been studied and fag addicts save the NHS a packet in chronic long term care. Add to that pensions paid for fewer years, residential care for shorter lifespans, it's a fiscal no brainer. Specially as the amounts paid in tobacco tax are so huge – lots of extra income, and then they FOAD before they collect on most of it. From memory he said tax take is about 4x as much as actual NHS costs arising. Neither NHS or HMG are keen to publicise.

Unfortunately my theory of reckless smoking to avoid old age isn't universally applicable. My grandad gave up on his 80th birthday because he "thought it wasn't doing him any good". He was still cycling and playing bowls for Lancs at that point (on and off, county champion), and one of my favourite memories is of getting shitfaced with him and grandma on the bottle of whisky I took to visit them. He was dead within 2 years after giving up, though I wouldn't go so far as to say that killed him. Perhaps it was me and the whisky.

I think the thing nobody really likes to admit is that the biggest risk factor is genetic lotto. Which of course would mean you're either the poor sod who gets to need a triple bypass at age 30 (my friend Jonathan), or you have the sort of constitution that isn't much affected by abuse that would kill horses. Most people are somewhere in between of course, but it's fashionable to expend vast amounts of time and misery trying to avoid that which is to an unknown extent unavoidable. We just like to think we're in control of probabilities even when we aren't.

In the end, despite epidemiological stats, that show smoking kills 25% of smokers before their time, 75% aren't – and struggle on to meet the Grim Reaper c/o the usual suspects, about a third cancers, a third cardiovascular disease, a third everything else that knocks you off your perch. Whatever happens, it ain't much to look forward to. But dribbling and pee-stained in a Parker Knoll, screaming silently within to please turn off Antiques Roadshow that I've seen 15 times already, is something I just don't want to stick around for.

17. Paul N. Blez - February 18, 2010

A top riposte, Tony. Touché!
When it comes to iron constitutions one thinks of Winston Churchill, drinking like a fish and smoking those big cigars for decades. Didn’t become Prime Minister till he was 65, survived a couple of minor strokes during the war, became Prime Minister again at 75, and somehow made it to 90.
Perhaps he would have lived to be 120 if he hadn’t smoked and drunk so much. Then again, perhaps not!
My own grandfather, on my mother’s side, was a contemporary, and survived the Boer War, ten years in the Sudan, four years in the trenches in WW1, including being both machine-gunned and blown up, the troubles in Ireland and the North West frontier. He was invalided out of the army in his 50s but lived to be 89, still with a piece of German shell in his eye.
I’ll be happy if I last as long as my old man. Cycling in his 80s and still performing in public the night before he died, a week before his 82nd birthday.

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