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Last Updated: Monday, 14 March, 2005, 12:19 GMT
A Point of View

By Brian Walden

In his weekly opinion column, Brian Walden asks how long it will be before smoking goes the way of absinthe.

Did you know that every year in the UK around 120,000 people die from smoking-related diseases? And did you know that there are 12 million smokers in the UK, two thirds of whom want to give up?

Don't worry, I shan't parrot any more of these morbid statistics. But Wednesday was "No Smoking Day" and I followed it closely, trying yet again to get rid of my ambivalence on the subject. On the one hand I know smoking is an unhealthy habit, on the other, I don't like to see people pushed around by the authorities.

Politicians who smoke have a miserable time of it. They're supposed to set an example to the huddled masses their colleagues are busy lecturing. I used to tease Harold Wilson about it. Wilson smoked a pipe in public, though often cigars in private, and I asked him why he didn't take his own government's excellent bossy advice and give up. "It's a busy man's vice," he said "and anyway we've all got to die of something."
Harold Wilson and his pipe
Harold Wilson: 'A busy man's vice'

My old tutor, who was a chain-smoker, had a much better argument against giving up. When I refused a proffered cigarette he asked me why. "Because it shortens your life," I said smugly. "I see," he said. "You enjoy tobacco, but propose to give it up so that you can live a long time. The gods will have heard you say that and will regard it as hubris. Walden, take this cigarette, or when you next walk out of college you'll be knocked down by a bus."

Fashionable opinion

Despite this pro-smoking encouragement, I have to say that trying to persuade people to give up smoking is a worthy cause. Yet I confess that my attention occasionally wandered during "No Smoking Day" from the business in hand to other aspects of the subject. For instance, the past history of smoking, the role fashion plays in sustaining or deterring smoking and smoking on the movie screen - perhaps the greatest fashion-setter of all. As always, thinking about the past puts the present in context.

Oscar Wilde said: "A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?" Such a comment captures the light-hearted way cigarettes were regarded before the risks were properly understood. A lot of fashionable people smoked. King Edward VII did and though cigars were his favourite tobacco he smoked a considerable number of cigarettes daily. So did his son George V and later his two grandsons Edward VIII and George VI.

Nor was this Royal smoking a hole-in-the-corner business. When Edward VIII was the Prince of Wales, numerous photographs of him printed in the newspapers showed him smoking. Except when attending church, or taking a parade, the male members of the royal family used to be seen smoking.

War effort

Smoking was a pleasure that excited very little criticism. I recall that my grandmother thought smoking was, as she put it, "manly." She held in high esteem a padre dubbed "Woodbine Willy," who used to give away packets of Woodbines to soldiers in the First World War. I got the impression that my grandmother felt that this religiously endorsed smoking was one of the reasons we won.

As for the movies, from the very first time I was taken to the cinema I saw cigarette smoking as a romantic act. Heroes smoked cigarettes and above all Humphrey Bogart smoked cigarettes.

Humphrey Bogart
Humphrey Bogart, plus cigarette, and Lauren Bacall
Most people have seen Bogart's old films, especially Casablanca and I suppose he's accepted as a hero, maybe even an icon. Yet it's difficult to recapture how much he meant to my generation, because his attributes have become completely unfashionable.

His heart was there, but never on his sleeve. His usual film role in his heyday was as an honourable, but cynical lone-wolf; self-contained and supremely self-confident. His cigarette was his most important prop, which he used to show relaxation, however great the disappointment or intense the pressure. Unfortunately he not only smoked incessantly on screen, but off it as well, dying before his time of throat cancer, smoking cigarettes to the bitter end.

So far I've mentioned only men but there was a popular song These Foolish Things which contained the line, "a cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces" which shows that the new modern woman of the 1930s and 40s also smoked. They certainly did in Hollywood movies. Stars like Bette Davis puffed away with relish.


The next time you watch a 1940s film, keep an eye open for the many times everybody on camera is smoking furiously. Even lovers gazing over the rail of an ocean liner were usually smoking. Cigarette smoking was thought to be smart and sophisticated. To enhance this impression famous figures such as Marlene Dietrich and President Franklin Roosevelt used ornate cigarette holders.

The part that fashionable approval or rejection plays in human affairs is enormous. Films are at the very forefront of fashion and have chronicled fairly accurately the decline of the cigarette from being an enjoyment of the smart set to its present status as a dangerous habit.

Yet because a large minority still smokes cigarettes, realism demands that they can't be entirely banished from the screen. Often in films made for the mass market an awkward compromise is struck. Take the Bond films. When the series began in the early 1960s Sean Connery as James Bond smoked frequently. As the years have gone by Bond's smoking has declined steadily. I wouldn't want to be held to it, but I think in the last Bond film I saw, Bond didn't smoke at all, though the American CIA boss lit a cigarette at a moment of high drama, thus earning himself a contemptuous look from Dame Judi Dench.

Some people find the smell of tobacco repulsive, but its decline as a habit stems of course from the health risks involved. There's a certain irony in this, because the American Indians, from whom we originally acquired tobacco, thought it possessed medicinal properties when smoked.

Harmful effects

Indeed some authorities say that it was for these supposed medicinal benefits that it was introduced into Europe. It's claimed that the harmful effect of smoking was spotted in the 19th Century when some doctors thought it caused cancer of the mouth. I'm disposed to put in a claim for one of our least popular kings - James I. He loathed tobacco and preached against it. He asserted that smoking was "dangerous to the lungs." He supplied no scientific evidence for this, but we now know he was right.

Hostility to tobacco smoking is increasing in all Western societies. Anything that adversely affects health will be banned whatever its effect on liberty. Already one sees hordes of fugitives smoking in the shrubbery having been driven out of their offices.

I bet smokers can feel a cold wind blowing
So intense is the witchhunt that it was reported this week that France's National Library has airbrushed Jean Paul Sartre's trademark cigarette out of a poster of the chain-smoking philosopher to avoid prosecution under an anti-tobacco law. The next great tourist centre is going to be a place where you can eat yourself fat and smoke yourself to death.

Is the cigarette, indeed tobacco smoking of any kind, going to survive this century in the Western world? Well at the end of February the world's first anti- smoking treaty came into force. It's signed by 168 countries and already ratified by 57 including the UK, India, Canada and Australia, who will try to tighten their tobacco laws.

I bet smokers can feel a cold wind blowing. Some stalwarts want to prevent smoking bans going any further, but I'll tell you why I think their prospects are bleak. When younger, I used to swan around the Left Bank in Paris and I met one or two old men who'd drunk absinthe - the real stuff, not a modern substitute. The old men were adamant that true absinthe was the most wonderful taste in the world.

But France had banned absinthe in 1915 because the wormwood in it was a killer. That's the rub and the same noose will slowly tighten on tobacco justly or not. Of course my old tutor would say that we want to live forever and the gods will send a plague to punish us.

Some of your comments on this article:

I'm a non-smoker and it's never been something that has appealed to me. If somebody wants to smoke, that is fine with me but I do not want to share in their cigarette smoke. Im in favour of banning smoking in public places for the good of public health, and if that means smokers feel sidelined, then maybe that will be an incentive for them to curb their habit which is not only harmful to them but other around them too.
Kerry, UK

Governor Schwarzenegger has a smoking tent so he can continue to smoke his cigars.
Candace, New Jersey, US

Pace Mr Walden, I have always understood that absinthe was banned, not for humanitarian reasons, but because it was held to lower the birth rate & hence reduce the supply of cannon fodder. Similarly the drug Salvarsan, the first almost-effective remedy for the pox, was developed by a Prussian army surgeon for similar reasons. In those days Church leaders in particular were against people being cured of V.D. as it was reckoned to be God's punishment for sin. By the way, although you can't get absinthe in France these days, I have bought it in Tesco's.
Chris N Smith, France

I have just quit smoking. Its only 5 days in and already I can feel the benefits. I can taste my food better and I smell a lot cleaner. I would only tell someone to stop if they really wanted to. I enjoyed a cigerette but now I am enjoying the benefits of non-smoking, even with the cravings I am getting everyday!! My motto is smoke if that what YOU want to do.
Scott, Stockport, England

Brian Walden writes as if the only ill effect of smoking is the damage to the smoker's health. But if I, a non-smoker, am forced to share an enclosed space with a smoker, within a few minutes my nose becomes blocked and the tissues in my mouth and throat become irritated. The smell of the tobacco smoke remains on my clothes for days afterwards. Without doubt, 'secondary' smoking' is a danger to the health and well being of non-smokers and this is why the smoking habit will eventually be forced out of existence.
John Owen, Spain

I quit smoking three years ago, but as long as cars in the UK kill the same number of people as passive smoking is alleged to, I'll cast my vote against blanket smoking bans (or at least as long as the cars are not banned as well). Mind you, this statistic does not even account for the polution caused by cars.
Anonymous, UK

I hate wanting to smoke. I want to stop smoking and positively enjoy not smoking. It seems to be more addictive than some of the so-called hard drugs, not helped by rich companies and get-rich-quick governments making money out of killing people slowly and painfully. And legally. I wonder when the Emperor's new clothes will be seen for what they are?
John Rymell, England

Many of the most vocal non-smokers I have encountered drive very large 4x4 vehicles around town and city centres, and yet if figures are to believed, then this makes not one iota of difference to the general health of the population, apart from the odd case of asthma in children. If there was mroe of a concerted effort to clear the air of the far more serious problem of vehicle pollution (particularly from 4x4s) then smokers might see there being some point in stopping. But why stop just to get poisoned and killed by a range rover?
Guy, UK

As an ex-smoker, albeit one who only smoked 4 or five a day, I am glad that smoking is now being considered to be extremely dangerous. My husband who also stopped smoking six years ago, no longer has the infamous 'cough'. However, there is an irony in all this...walking from our flight from Toronto to Heathrow prior to ceasing smoking, a couple paralleling our route were complaining bitterly about someone (my husband) smelling of smoke and how harmful this all was. Hm - let's think about this: we had just spent six hours in a tin can burning thousands of gallons of jet fuel to enable us to get to our destination. Does anyone really think past the obvious? You can see, smell and now know the results of smoking. But what about the results of bad diets (speak to Jamie Oliver) or the results of medications pumped into our animals to keep them healthy while they are fattened for our feasting. The list is endless and I am sure it won't be long before carciogenics are confirmed in! Tobacco is a drug, Iżve smoked for many years but have now given up, though I do still kid myself it is OK to have the odd one with a beer. My main motivation after health was if you smoke you are being made to feel like an outcast. People look down their noses at you, you have to go outside, or to what is no better than a broom cupboard hidden away with other social outcasts to have a smoke. Though I have to admit I do wish I had never started, looking back I canżt see why I did.
Gary, England

I thought you might like to know that Absinthe has just been "re-habilitated" in Switzerland. Since 1. March 2005 Absinthe is once again on sale, after being banned for approx. 70 years! As an ex-smoker I agree heartily with banning smoking in public places.
Robert Jonsen, Switzerland

I cannot foresee a time when an activity which has not only been legal for hundreds of years but has had the implicit support of the (tax-collecting) state can ever become illegal to do in private by consenting adults. In public places, perhaps banned, yes, and taxed beyond endurance for more of those 12 million, but never illegal in the West.
Hamish Walker, UK

A lot of smokers seem to feel victimised by people constantly telling them that they should stop. In my opinion, if someone wants to smoke, then they should be allowed to - with one condition - that it affects nobody else. That's the problem though. I think it is great that smoking is prohibited on public transport. However many people will have experienced arriving nto a city centre from a busy commuter train or bus first thing in the morning, where hordes of smokers 'light-up' with relief while walking towards the exit; most of them quite unaware, and seemingly uncaring of the dozens of people around them that are subject to the smell and effects of the smoke. Many of us will also have been caught up in traffic and noticed people smoking in their cars while children are sitting in the back seats. Who are the victims?
Clarence Gosney, UK

As a regular smoker for 10 years and then social smoker for another 5 years I say "Good riddence to cigarettes". Yes I started at school to look older but looking back now it was the worst thing I ever did with my life. Now I feel healthy, fit and clean. I can really taste my food and am enjoying life more and more. I just wish others can find the strength to give up the weed and then perhaps we will have a more pleasant environment, certainly there will be a lot less rubbish on the street!
Danny , UK

So lets assume smoking is outlawed. Where will governments both local and national recover the billions paid in taxes associated with tobacco? Are all the non smokers willing to be taxed even more to recover this lost revenue? And bear in mind the argument that smoking costs the health system does not fly as the taxes from tobacco well cover them & here in the US health care is not covered by the state anyway. No my friends Governments speak the speak but do not want to outlaw tobacco, there is just to much money at stake.
Phil, USA

Actually, I vaguely remember Bond smoking a very rare Cuban cigar in his latest film (Die Another Day), commenting on its qualities before lighting it. A rare movie that seemed to buck the tobacco-advert trend was Constantine, which looked like it was entirely sponsored by tobacco companies until about 20 minutes into the film, when all that was proven wrong. The problem is that smoke is too visual to be ignored by Hollywood, so I am sure many cool characters (especially villains) to come will be smokers...

I was born and reared in the heart of tobacco country and began smoking at the age of 16, which was perfectly legal in 1977. It was the cool thing to do, but I couldn't have known at that young age how hideous the addiction would be or that it would take me 21 years to quit. I white-knuckled myself off them because I couldn't breathe properly and because they were aging me well before my time. At $4 a pack, it was a ridiculously high price to pay to slowly kill myself! To all smokers I tell you that you can quit -- steel your nerves and do it! If I can, you can, and you'll be thankful you did in the end.
Will L., North Carolina, USA

With the decline of the real tobacconist shop there will no doubt be a decline in uptake of the dried leaf. As a child I was taken to the pipe store and loved the smell of tobacco' rising from their jars. I moderately smoke due these memories. Future generations will not be acquainted with such stores and with sterilised TV and advertising a ban should not be necessary, but will no doubt be enforced by the government.
Dave Gorman, Glasgow, UK

It is a strange world. You can be a fat drunken drug addled litter lout who drives a massively polluting car and be on perpetual fraudulent sick pay (none of which apply to me I hasten to add) and no one bats an eyelid. Light up a cigarette and suddenly I'm up there with Harold Shipman and Joseph Mengele, evil incarnate. The anti smoking fuss is all a bit OTT.
Michael, UK

An excellent article Mr Walden, I have recently given up smoking after twenty eight years of puffing away. Thanks to the smoking ban here in the Rep of Ireland, I feel I would not have been successful in my quest, to never smoke again. I hated its control over my body and mind and welcomed the Irish Governments stance, on its no tolerance to smoking in public places. I feel liberated by my self determination to never smoke again, thanks to the ban. I hope the UK follows soon and more people will reap the rewards, of the now informed no smoking societies of 2005.
Hugh Derham, Ireland


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