Tuesday 14 March 2006

Got a light, mate?

I love smoking, but I don’t smoke. Which is odd, given that I’m not noted for denying myself any of life’s little pleasures, as even the photograph of my much slimmer and fitter body double at the head of this column might lead you to suspect.

So why don’t I smoke? It’s not a financial issue, as I’m sure I could afford it. When I gave up my packet-a-day habit 30 years ago, I was never conscious even for one minute of being so much as a single penny better off. Other ex-smokers tell me that this experience is universal, so surely the reverse must apply. Taking it up again ought to be virtually cost-free.

Except, as our protectors in Parliament would say, for the Human Cost.

Given that virtually all human actions are motivated by either greed of fear, it has to be fear of that human cost which has corralled me into the non-smoking camp. A personal human cost since, as we all know, a pain in our own little finger is vastly more important than the deaths of thousands of our fellow beings.

I freely admit that my moral courage has always been matched by huge physical cowardice. When I was a child, it was said that I only needed a glimpse of a hypodermic needle to make me a dead cert for the British & Empire title in the Under-13s 100 yard dash. But what exactly have I got to be afraid of?

I’ve never watched anyone die of lung cancer, which is pretty lucky given the number of fags that must have passed through the nicotine-stained fingers of my father and most of his generation. But I’m quite prepared to accept the word of the specialists, sufferers and bereaved that it’s a pretty unpleasant way to go.

On the other hand, is reducing life expectancy by an average of seven years, as smokers are said to do, a completely bad thing? Quite apart from the looming pensions crisis, we need to remember the scenario painted in a cherished cartoon, which an old lady of my acquaintance had framed in her sitting room. Two very elderly people are sitting in the day room of a particularly dismal old folks’ home, surrounded by other moribund inmates, and one is shouting at the other: ‘Just think – if we hadn’t given up smoking, we’d have missed ALL THIS!’

Needless to say, the old lady with the cartoon was a heroic smoker until her dying day. And we all know someone like her. In the professions devoted to saving us from ourselves I believe it’s known as Uncle Fred Syndrome, because nearly all of us have an Uncle Fred who smoked 40 Capstan Full Strength every day for 80 years, and only died then because he had a nasty fall off a Swedish aerobics instructor.

Which could happen. Though it’s not very likely.

As smokers are consigned to the outer darkness of pariah-dom, let’s try to remember one fact. The largest single cause of cancer is breathing oxygen, and I’m greatly looking forward to seeing the present Government trying to legislate against that. Indeed, the only man-made variables that are of any statistical significance in the incidence of cancer are smoking and spending too much time in the sun. So watch out for the coming crackdown on thongs and high-cut swimsuits: you read it here first.

None of the other things that the neurotic middle classes of the first world bother their heads about, from nuclear power stations and overhead lines to mobile phones and GM foods have any detectable effect at all.

So, yes, you’re probably right not to smoke. On the other hand, think of the prim voice of the upper class Australian schoolmarm who is currently our Health Secretary, presumably under some Commonwealth exchange programme that has gone horribly wrong. Wouldn’t it be worth lighting one up just to annoy her? I know I’m tempted … oh, go on then. I don’t suppose it’ll kill me …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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