Hits 3654 | Created 2007-05-15 | Modified 2007-05-15
I have what would be described as a love-hate relationship with tobacco.
Tobacco surely was designed
To poison and destroy mankind.
Philip M. Freneau (1752 - 1832), American journalist and rebel.
I started smoking relatively late in life (for a smoker) at the tender age of nineteen. I was living in a house with a lot of people who smoked cannabis on a regular basis, myself included. In England it is customary to roll joints with tobacco mixed with the grass or hash, in order to produce a long-smoking spliff that can be passed around the room a few times, each person being able to take their time and have a good few long drags. All very well and good, but over a lengthy period of time you end off smoking tobacco on a regular basis, and form a small habit. This tobacco habit is unlike the normal smoker's, however - it is based entirely around the activity of smoking a joint. You won't suddenly find yourself craving a cigarette in the middle of the day - you might crave a joint, but not a cigarette.
If life could pass with a permanent supply of cannabis, then I think I would never have taken the step that I took next - the step that leads to the habit of tobacco smoking. When we ran out of cannabis I would sit around and twiddle my thumbs, and stare at my tobacco packet. It wasn't long before I started to roll up little cigarettes, as a kind of joint-substitute. They weren't any good, but it was better than nothing, or so I reasoned. Then I started to roll little cigarettes when I was in the local pub, enjoying the taste of the tobacco better with beer than without. And so was established my long running affair with tobacco - I drink, therefore, I smoke.
Now I can't abide a pint of beer without a rollie. But again, this is unlike other smoking addictions. If I'm not drinking, I don't smoke, I don't desire to smoke, I don't even think about smoking. If I don't drink alcohol for two weeks, I don't smoke for two weeks. It is a pastime linked to drinking in a way that I can never separate. I try smoking a cigarette when waiting for a bus in the cold, but I don't enjoy it - it seems bitter and makes my throat dry. When the person in the street in front of me is smoking a cigarette, I hold my breath in order not to breathe the smoke. But I would take part in civil war to defend the right of that person to smoke, in a bar, or in the street.
Have you ever been to a bar that has an extractor fan in it? Bars that have non-smoking zones, and smoking zones? I become insane with rage when I hear about cities introducing no smoking in bars. Why? Why not just divide the bar into two zones? I visited Ottawa a few weeks ago for the first time and was traumatised when I found that I couldn't smoke in any public buildings - including bars. The streets of Ottawa are full of people standing in doorways, puffing away. One visitor commented on the city's prostitute problem, mistaking all the women lurking in doorways for working girls.
I also have a problem with ready-rolled, filter cigarettes. They do stink. Even I can't abide them. I would force all smokers to use rolling tobacco if I had my way - less chemicals - less of a noxious smell.
Tobacco has always had a bed press in terms of smell though. I actually suspect that the real reason smoking is so hated by non-smokers is due to the smell alone and has nothing at all to do with health - if cigarettes produced only a faint odour, of roses perhaps, or none at all, I don't think anyone would care less. As far back as 1600 people have been complaining about this, take King James I of England for example (from 'A Counterblaste to Tobacco'):
A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose,
harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs,
and in the black stinking fumes thereof, nearest
resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit
that is bottomless.
I'm encouraged that over 400 years later, tobacco is still here, despite such powerful protesters. There seem to be a lot of historical figures who are quoted as despising tobacco, and less that dare to praise the weed. Perhaps history books are being 'cooked' to reflect today's moods. One noteworthy advocate from the period though is Moliere, author of 'Don Juan', around 1650:
Aristotle and the philosophers notwithstanding,
there's nothing to equal tobacco. It's an honest
man's habit and anyone who can live without it
doesn't deserve to live at all.
The harmful effects of tobacco cannot be denied, but then my attitude is that life is dangerous, and it seems that everything that is enjoyable in life seems to come with a penalty for overuse. I don't smoke very much, mindful of graphical depictions of cancer on the television - perhaps just a few rollies every week, more if I drink a lot on a weekend, say at a party. I recently underwent a medical with a doctor. He asked me sternly if I smoked, and I replied that I did, but just a two or three rolling cigarettes a week, preparing myself for the rebuke and lecture.
'Only two or three? Why, that doesn't even count - I'll put down that you don't smoke.'
What a great doctor. What a great attitude. My friend who has smoked rolling cigarettes for the last ten years, solidly, was strolling through town one day when he was confronted by a large machine, which people were being invited to blow into. It was a lung-o-meter, designed to illustrate the feeble blowing power of people that smoke. He stepped up and blew the meter straight up to the top of the scale where it emitted a triumphant beep. The man congratulated him on his good lungs and told the crowd that this was what a non-smoker could do with his lungs. But wait, said my friend, taking out his pack of tobacco and beginning to roll up, I do smoke. The spluttering man hastily told the crowd that rolling tobacco was much better (less bad) for the health than commercially pre-rolled pre-nictotine-sprayed, pre-chemical-soaked tobacco.
There you go, what more do you need to justify your smoking habits than the words of a lung-o-meter street physician? Those of us that smoke tend to cling to any positive anecdotes like this that we can find.
So when am I going to give up? People ask me this all the time, or they ask I if have tried giving up yet? I have a problem with this all-or-nothing approach to life - it tends to imply that we are too weak to be able to moderate ourselves. I happily smoke two or three cigarettes a week and am happy, well adjusted, and even my doctor is content. Where is the problem? I can't, personally, understand why people can't just cut down the level of their cigarette consumption to a sensible amount, and then leave it there - you still have the joy of smoking, but cut your risk of terrible diseases by a large amount. Drinking is a similar thing - I have danced around the edge of alcoholism in my past, and if I had been living in North America at the time, no doubt would have been rushed into some kind of give-it-up-forever programme, like AA. But I decided that just drinking less was a better option than never, ever, drinking again. Would one beer make me dash off to empty my saving accounts and go on a month-long drinking binge? I don't think so.
Many of you will probably think that I'm trivialising some major issues, but from the perspective of someone from England, North America (for example) makes much too big a deal out of some simple vices such as getting drunk once a week, which is considered the norm in England - it is a kind of self-medication-stress-relief-therapy. If the majority of my friends from England were transplanted to the U.S., they would have concerned friends knocking on their door in no time saying, look, I think you have a problem. A good example is a Nigerian friend of mine who won a green card a few years ago. He was accustomed to English life, and that meant a couple of pints of Guinness every lunchtime at work with the boss and everyone else. On his first day in his new job in the States, everyone was taken out to a meal in his honour and supplied with a rather weak Budweiser. My friend drained the bottle after ten minutes and asked the waiter for another, at which point concerned mumbles went around the table - he's ordered another! Wow, he must be quite a drinker.
But, I digress. I was talking about tobacco.
So, to wrap up - do I promote smoking? No. Do I think it is a good thing? No. Do I think it's sexy or cool? No. Do I think it smells bad. Yes, well, pre-rolled cigarettes anyway. Do I recommend this habit to anyone else? No. Do I think people should have the right to choose to smoke? Yes. In a public place? Yes. In a bar? Yes, buy a bloody extractor fan and divide your bar in two, is it so difficult?
I believe that we have the right to choose how to live our lives - healthily, or unhealthily. The right to take risks that might involve our deaths, whether it be sky-diving, motorcycling without a helmet or smoking tobacco. What possible reason could the government have for wanting to coddle us and like this and forbid dangerous things? If we're aware of the risks, why can't we take them? Oh! The anger builds up inside me again...
I'll leave the last words to Charles Lamb (1775 - 1834), an English writer who was rather fond of smoking: