I have to say I feel a certain pity for US President-elect Barack Obama — here he is, on the verge of being the most powerful man in the world, yet he’ll be unable to spark up a relaxing cigarette in his own home, for smoking is banned in the White House. In recent weeks, Obama has been dodging questions about his smoking but he’s admitted that, while having officially quit, he’s “fallen off the wagon” several times. On the campaign trail he was often seen chewing gum and it’s a reasonable assumption that this was of the nicotine variety — a substitute for the love that dare not puff its name.
Of course, were Obama to have announced that as of 1 January he had absolutely and irrevocably stopped smoking it would be a tremendous coup for the anti-smoking lobby, especially given that, as things stand, the President-elect is a public relations nightmare for them: he’s youthful, fit, good-looking and apparently smokes only intermittently. Moreover, even when he is on the weed his habit is pretty modest — he’s admitted to seven a day in the past but in recent years this has dropped to a mere three. Some experts have conceded that Obama may be finding it harder to give up precisely because he isn’t that addicted. In other words, he may be that most worrying of things: a smoker who actually enjoys smoking.
I said I felt pity for Obama and I do. We’re the same age and while I may not have his boyish grin, my 18-year-old son and I have — I kid you not — been mistaken for siblings. I do keep fit and, like Obama, I smoke about three cigarettes a day. However, there the resemblance ends: I’m not remotely powerful, and nobody, whether they be PR wonk, pollster or doctor, is going to prevail on me to stop smoking unless I decide I want to. Moreover, I can smoke in my own home, and from time to time I have not only a cigarette but also a cigar and even — gulp! — a pipe full of Dunhill Royal Yacht, a Virginia blend of unsurpassed oomph.
Truly, anyone who writes in support of smoking in this day and age is a hostage to his own good fortune. You’d have to be an utter ignoramus to be able any longer to disregard the evidence on smoking and health: it kills. It doesn’t matter if you opt for low-tar brands, avoid inhaling or maintain perfect habits in all other areas tobacco smoke is so pernicious that if you regularly inhale it, your chance of dying from a related disease is 50-50. Dreadful odds I’m sure you’ll agree, so the game emphatically ain’t worth the candle.
That’s why, over the past few years, I’ve taken steps to moderate my smoking. To begin with I tried the path of total abstinence. The idea didn’t bother me because as a recovering drug addict and alcoholic I’ve had to completely forswear a whole raft of intoxicants: nicotine was only the last on the list. I read Allen Carr’s book, which I found myself agreeing with wholeheartedly. I ditched my substantial collection of tobacco, cigars, cigarettes and associated impedimenta and I began to exercise a lot more. I enjoyed the vaguely hallucinogenic experience of withdrawal, even the emotional lability, the rages and the tears.
After three months, I never thought of smoking so long as I was alone. I enjoyed being a non-smoker, in particular the increased fitness and the ability to get over a cold in a couple of days without it turning into a bad cough or sinus trouble. Many writers claim that smoking improves their concentration, but I had no difficulty writing at all and completed the novel I was working on at the usual pace. True, its protagonist was an inveterate smoker, who, even when he gave up due to a fatal and progressive pulmonary disease, remarked “Au fond, I think I will always be smoking.” Prophetic words, for six months after I typed them I began smoking again.
This is relatively uncommon: fewer than 10 per cent of smokers who give up for over a year relapse. I could spin all sorts of yarns about why it was that I began again but they’d most likely be bullshit. The truth was I wanted a cigarette. I also wanted a cigar and I had a particular yen to smoke a pipe, something I’d never desired before. Like a lot of long-term abstainers who return to the habit I found the idea of giving up again far harder to contemplate than the first time. It was because I’d failed, of course, but then there was the epicurean aspect of my smoking. I’d always been a connoisseur of tobacco — not for me the mechanical puffing on a Silk Cut — and when I resumed the pernicious habit I indulged my love of the finest smokes to the hilt. Within months I had a cigar dealer who made house calls with a Gladstone bag full of “specials”: hand-rolled Havanas that were complete one-offs.
Yet, as I said, I’m no ignoramus and couldn’t indulge myself with anything like a clean conscience. My renewed smoking coincided with the ramping up of the anti-smoking laws in England, measures that I couldn’t, in all honesty, disagree with. The ban on smoking in restaurants and bars was trumpeted by the Government as a great achievement, but once only one in four adults smoked, it was really only a fait accompli: a smoker who continues to insist on his “right” to subject others to his blue-grey afflatus is mad as well as stupid.
That being noted, I did enjoy smoking after restaurant meals a great deal and I also liked smoking at book parties and openings. As I was never enormously gregarious to begin with, the ban has had a definite impact on my socialising, especially since I knew from the outset that I wasn’t going to join those wraiths who, wreathed by the whiffs of their own mortality, gather by the doors of offices, bars and clubs. A couple of years after the ban I’m amazed by the numbers of my peers who still tramp off every half-hour to stand in the cold streets getting their fix. It isn’t a remotely enjoyable way to smoke, and if you’re an actual nicotine addict you’re better off with gum, patch or lozenge.
Overall though, I’ve been grateful for the ban — it’s meant I’ve cut my intake to the point where my doctor says he doesn’t regard me as a smoker any more. Given the quantity of my smoking in the past, this may be too late to save me but nevertheless it’s given me back the improved day-to-day health I had when I gave up altogether. Even so, I’m not convinced that yet more anti-smoking measures are the way forward. There’s considerable evidence that the initial decrease following the ban has now stabilised, while the sense young people have of smoking being cool and glamorous will only be enhanced by putting the dreaded weed below the counter. There’s also an obvious hypocrisy in a culture that forbids one intoxicant while shamelessly and openly indulging in another. Kids loathe hypocrisy in their elders.
As to President Obama, I think he should take a leaf out of my Havana and designate one of the 132 rooms in the White House for smoking. It may be a bad habit but let’s face it, it’s far less injurious to world health than some of the things that are habitually done in the other rooms.
This article was first published in the Evening Standard, 06.01.09