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Give me just one good reason why we should be nice to smokers

THE SMOKERS are back. The boss ones are slinking out of the set- aside "smoking-room" leper colonies and returning to their offices to puff, and it cannot be long before their nicotinous underlings - emboldened - follow suit. It is, once again, cool to inhale, and sad to complain. It won't be long before the statistics that have, for 20 years, shown a constant drop in the number of smokers in Britain begin to indicate a rise.

It's hardly surprising, in a way. Heroin chic had a fairly short life span, but fag lure has been big for a couple of years now. Pop stars smoke, actors smoke, models smoke, journalists smoke, TV psychotherapists smoke, fictitious young women smoke. You cannot get from one wall of the Groucho club to the other without inhaling enough tar to repair the M25. Smoking is dead fashionable.

I know that at this point some smokers will wonder aloud whether we inhabit the same planet, and begin to tell horror tales of councils proposing to ban cigarettes in parks, and on the streets outside their offices. They will point to a few long-haul air services where smoking is not permitted at all, and where maddened addicts have put the lives of hundreds at risk by inadvertently setting fire to the aeroplane lavatories. They will paint a picture of loneliness, cold and deprivation that will rival any sob story from those who have merely suffered, say, being held hostage in Chechnya.

They lie. Let us take restaurants, for example. I have never yet found a restaurant where smoking is banned altogether. Most of the larger, cheapo chains provide segregated smoking areas, which are usually separated from the clean-air zone by nothing more than one of those trolleys that dispense napkins and straws. Indeed, in some of the trendier, bistro- style, faux-francais places, it is often the smokers who get the best of the deal.

At The Dome, in Hampstead in London, for instance, despite an admittedly erratic one-man campaign on the part of a former customer, the smokers get the whole front of the restaurant (where the light is) to themselves. Non-smokers are banished to a middle region in the Stygian gloom of the near-toilet area, where service is disconcertingly linked to the bodily needs of the staff. And then, right at the back, where no one can see them, is where they put the families with small children. Cancer, of course, doesn't make a noise; I do not go there any more.

More often, however, there is no separate facility at all. In the vast majority of small and medium-sized restaurants, it is entirely a matter of luck whether you find yourself smoking other people's cigarettes at the same time as you slop down the creme brulee.

Invariably I seem to find myself next to a Bridget Jones and her even more neurotic friend. Such women, in their late twenties and early thirties, tend to be both heavy smokers and completely self-absorbed, holding their fag-hands at your nose level while they whinge on about not being loved. No shaming stratagems work on them. They interpret glares as signs of either sexual interest or eccentricity, loud coughs as an unpleasant symptom of an imminent health threat, and "tsks" as signifying sympathy with whatever today's predicament may be.

They are utterly impervious to the risk they are taking with your life. The announcement yesterday of the findings of the largest ever European study of the effects of passive smoking will have entirely passed them by. People whose partners smoke at home have a 16 per cent greater chance of contracting lung cancer, the International Agency on the Research of Cancer discovered, and among those who worked for many years in smoky environments, that figure rises as high as 26 per cent. And yet, none of this will stop Bimbolina next door from giving me a good faceful of Gitanes, if the fancy takes her.

Some nicotine addicts, particularly those who are friends, are much more solicitous than this; they will not smoke in front of you if they can help it, and will go through agonies and indignities to avoid giving offence. There are, after all, two discrete types of smoker: those who wish to give up but cannot - and idiots. For 10 years, before I packed it in, I was one of the former. Many of today's smokers are the latter. They tend to think of themselves as dicing, romantically, with death and adventure, or leading a late-middle-aged charge against conformism. "I smoke because I like it!" they say, stupidly unaware of the shadowy figure in the corner, with the bony grin.

Nice smokers will sometimes ask whether we mind them smoking. They should know that most of us, when we say "no", are fibbing. We no more mind smoke in our hair, eyes and nose and on our clothes, than we mind being farted over by a rugby team. But for friendship's sake, like dutiful wives in the age before they invented foreplay and clitorises, we lie back, take a deep breath and think of England.

But indulging our smoker friends does them no favours. One day they will smoke in the garden. Then, granted permission, they will have "just one" in the dining-room. And within weeks they will be smoking between mouthfuls, and dropping the ends into half-empty coffee cups. They cannot help it. The only kind thing to do (and, when pushed, they will admit it) is to tell them, when they ask, that you do bloody well mind. If they love you, they'll come back.

The problem, though, is what to do about the increasing number of the totally unrepentant, those who - if you like - smoke without a condom. True, we can step up the campaign to ban their horrid activity from wherever we happen to be, but even that is likely to fail in the long term, if smoking is seen as being once more a sexy and vaguely rebellious activity. More will take up the habit, and the pendulum will swing farther back.

No, the only truly effective way to get smokers to behave decently is through ridicule. They have to be made to feel that the habit is silly, is naff, is sad. Admittedly, this will be an uphill task with people who are inclined, for instance, to listen to the routine mendacity of the tobacco companies and their ludicrous spokesthing, the ex-Tory MP John Carlisle (who used, once, to believe that apartheid was good for South African blacks). These companies seek to convince us that they are not using advertising to recruit new smokers, but merely competing for the ones who are already out there. No one will be happier than they when the last smoker has had his last wheeze, and they can go entirely into the prostitution business. If smokers buy this baloney, it is not going to be easy to persuade them to quit.

So here's my little suggestion: National Kick a Smoker Day. On one (maybe two) days of the year the rest of us should be allowed to kick any smoker we see in the bottom. Nothing too hard - just a quick, sharp, unvindictive jab to the posterior. Kickers would be indemnified by Parliament, and protected by the law; those retaliating would be subject to heavy fines. Is that Liam Gallagher puffing away? Sidle behind him, and give him one on the right cheek. And who's that with the cigar? I don't care if you are the President of the United States, just don't light it, that's all.