No Smoke Without Ire

BY JAMES BEMBRIDGE

In my town of Buxton, all the litter bins are engraved with this not very polite message: ‘STUB IT. BIN IT.’

There are not, I notice, signs warning pub goers about the nuisance they might cause. There are no public messages menacing fast-food addicts about what they might do with their litter. No, it’s only smokers who the British regard with this kind of resentful suspicion.

I’ve met people who look on in horror at how much the Europeans smoke while simultaneously wondering why they are so mystically slim. Could the British attitude to smoking be explained by our love for the NHS? With nationalised healthcare, there’s always the feeling that engaging in habits that are bad for one’s health will put more pressure on the system; that one would in some way be ‘betraying the greater good’. It might be that feeling that emboldens the British public to challenge smokers in a way that they would not challenge drinkers, burger-eaters, or readers of feminist literature.

Almost everyone knows someone killed by smoking, but some people think it gives them the right – or is it an excuse? – to lecture living smokers. Is it seriously thought that smokers open a packet of cigarettes, plastered with Cronenbergesque body horror photos, and conclude they aren’t harmful? Of course not. In Britain, smokers are an excuse for the pious and the paternalistic to force their dreary preaching on people who don’t want to hear it – a ‘captive’ audience in the very worst sense.   

For every person to have died from smoking, the smoker claims to have known someone in their 90s, ‘fighting fit’, and who has smoked a packet a day all their life. I’m yet to meet any of these chain-smoking nonagenarians myself. Doubtless some exist, but they have become a kind of convenient myth; a myth that the smoker, when arguing, would do well to avoid employing. There’s no use in meeting someone’s anecdotes with your own if you think the argument is an unjust one in the first place.

It’s a strange truth that most British people would sooner confront a smoker than they would a heroin addict. The heroin addict is seen as a sympathetic figure, a product of a failed society and therefore someone whom society should help. The smoker is seen as selfish. Someone who, through second-hand smoking, spreads their poison onto others like some plague-ridden rat. The harms of second-hand smoking are real. But so are the harms of alcohol-fuelled domestic abuse and drug gang violence. If you are going to attack one, then why not attack them all with equal zeal?

The general sneer from the non-smoker is: ‘Do you think it’s cool?’ If they didn’t think it was cool themselves, then they wouldn’t ask. There aren’t many films or songs that I can think of which are dedicated to teetotaling librarians.  Everything ‘cool’ is in some way self-destructive. Name one of your favourite writers and I wager that they smoked and drank their way to fame. All the writers and journalists who brought a kind of romance to their work –  Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Philip Larkin, Tom Wolfe, AA Gill,  Christopher Booker and, of course, Christopher Hitchens – smoked, and liked to be seen to smoke. Compare these people’s writing with the writing of those who lead the more austere lifestyle of, say, George Monbiot. The comparison becomes almost comical.

It’s no coincidence that the author of The Rebel, Albert Camus, was never seen without a Gauloise cigarette hanging from his mouth. I have noticed that all smokers have an inclination to rebel. These aren’t people who think that smoking is right, but they have an inveterate disgust towards those who presume to tell them what is. That’s why messages like those engraved on the Buxton litter bins will always fail.

Tell a smoker that they better ‘stub it out’, and they will be more inclined to tar their lungs.

James Bembridge is Deputy Editor of Country Squire Magazine.