My earliest memories are of people smoking. Stinging smoke in my eyes, an ashtray on every flat surface. By the time that I was old enough to think about it, I didn’t hardly know anyone who wasn’t a smoker. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, many of my cousins, and all their friends and neighbours. Customers in shops, and shopkeepers and assistants too. Most of the teachers at school, a large section of my fellow pupils, and any man I ever met over the age of sixteen. They all smoked.
You could smoke on the top deck of a bus, in the smoking compartments of trains, and in any seat in a coach. The cinema was fair game too, though theatres had generally restricted smoking to the bar only, and during intervals. Restaurants provided ashtrays on every table, large stores employed people to sweep up the butts discarded on the floors, and nobody ever complained. Cigarettes were relatively cheap, as were matches. It was part of growing up, a rite of passage, as well as a huge industry.
Advertisers had been urging us to smoke for decades by then. Once commercial TV arrived, smart and glossy adverts urged us to try different brands. Almost sixty years later, I still remember some of the tag-lines. ‘You’re never alone with a Strand.’ ‘Consulate, cool as a mountain stream.’ Sponsorship followed, with F1 racing teams like JPS being financed by tobacco companies. Then there were the films. From the earliest days, smoking in films was portrayed as sexy, manly, or just a good way to chat someone up. Studio stars had portfolio photos taken, showing them lighting cigarettes, or sitting swathed in swirls of smoke. Soldiers in war films prized their smokes above all, with product placement for brands like Chesterfield and Lucky Strike accepted as fact. Lovers were shown lighting up after sex scenes, as if the post-coital cigarette was the reason for it all to begin with.
Almost everyone smoked, and nobody seemed to care.
In 1967, I was taken to see my GP. I had very swollen eyes, a result of my first experience of hay fever. Not only was this kindly old man smoking as I entered the consultation room, he offered my Mum a cigarette as she sat down. By the time I reached the age of sixteen, I had resisted the urge to try smoking. Still at school, I had little or no disposable income, so the prospect of spending what I had on cigarettes did not even occur to me. The following summer, I got a holiday job. I was on full-time wages, and finally had some real money in my pocket.
On payday, I went into the local shop, and bought twenty cigarettes and a box of matches. There was no question of not selling them to me. I had been sent out to buy cigarettes for my parents since I was seven or eight. I used to be allowed to spend the change on sweets, so always looked forward to being asked to run over to the shop. I lit my first ever cigarette, just over six months short of my seventeenth birthday. I expected to cough violently, and to not know how to smoke. I thought it might taste bad, feel hot, or be otherwise unpleasant. But it wasn’t. It was easy. I felt a little light-headed, but in a good way. I just had the one though, then put them away in a coat pocket.
A year later, and I had left school to take a full-time job. I smoked all the time by then, trying different brands to settle on the one I liked best. My parents had seemed relieved when they saw me smoking. To them it was perfectly natural, and it didn’t worry them in the least. I had joined the smokers, something that they had all been waiting for me to do.
Over the following decades, I smoked without thinking. I met my first wife, who also smoked, though only casually. My second wife had just given up when we met, but had no problem with me smoking at all. I could still smoke almost anywhere. Even the receptionists in the hospital smoked, as they booked patients in. Doctors would sneak into the staff room, to join the heavy-smoking nurses for a much-need cigarette break. But the tide was turning. Cinemas had brought in the ridiculous ‘right-hand’ system. All the seats on the right of the auditorium had smoking allowed, but not the left. That meant I would be sitting less than four feet away from a non-smoker during a 2-3 hour film, puffing away happily. On aircraft, you had to request a ‘smoking seat’. These were always the few rows at the very back. This still meant that a non-smoker was only one seat away from a person who might be smoking a cigar or pipe, as well as those using cigarettes. But duty-free cigarettes and cigars were sold to aircraft passengers, so there was a vested interest. Restaurants introduced ‘smoking tables’, again close to non-smokers who had to suffer in silence, most of the time.
Soon after, the anti-smoking lobby was gaining ground. Sides were taken, battle-lines drawn. Some of those same doctors who had sneaked into the staff room for a smoke in their youth, were now making television programmes about the hazards of tobacco smoke. Gory photos of cancerous tumours and diseased lungs were all over the media. And then there was the cost. Successive governments had increased the taxes on cigarettes, knowing that they could milk the nicotine addicts of their money, like so many cash cows. But I had a well-paid job, so I continued to buy my expensive Lucky Strikes. When I eventually met Julie, in the year 2000, one of the first things I told her was that I was a heavy smoker. By then it was important to get that fact across as soon as possible in any relationship. Fortunately, she told me that she also smoked, so that problem was solved.
Twelve years later, with retirement looming, I realised that I could no longer afford to buy cigarettes. They had increased in price to an extortionate £8.80 back then, and cost even more now. I could easily do the sums. Ten packets a week = £88. Multiply that by 52 weeks, and you get £4,576. That was more than one of my two pensions, just for cigarettes. So, we both gave up. Well, not exactly gave up. We switched to e-cigarettes, called ‘Vaping’ in some countries. It’s a fraction of the price, and is currently thought to be 95% safer than smoking. Very little in life is 100% safe, not even tap water, so it’s a fair gamble.
But it might all be too late of course. The damage could have been done all those years ago, as I sat enjoying my Lucky Strikes. Ask any smoker, and they will tell you it’s mostly about habit. Answering the phone? Light a cigarette. Driving in traffic? Light a cigarette. Enjoying a beer, or glass of wine? Better with a cigarette. Stressful day, or an argument with your partner? A cigarette helps. The first cup of coffee in the morning, or that last hot drink at night. Start the day with a cigarette, and round it off with one too. Just eaten a nice meal? Time for a cigarette. Leaving the house? Pat down your pockets, or check your handbag. Make sure you have those cigarettes and lighter on you. The habit is stronger than the addiction for most of us. And I say us, because I am still a smoker, albeit one of a different kind. I don’t preach, or take sides. It is what it is, for whatever reason it began.
But the next time you hear yourself say, “I’m dying for a cigarette.” You probably are.