It's true: tobacco can seriously improve your life

THE MEETING was about to start and, at one end of the boardroom table, my friend Roddy was puffing on one of his aggressively large cigars. It was going to be a long, dreary morning, so I lit up a more modest half corona.

As our smoke mingled companionably over the gathering, a female colleague inexplicably began to splutter and wave her arms about like a demented bookmaker. She was allergic, she gasped, watery-eyed. My, how we laughed at her protests although, ever willing to compromise, I opened a window slightly.

All has changed now, of course. That was a few years ago and I feel retrospectively ashamed. Not only were we inflicting our own antisocial behaviour upon this poor woman, but we were probably poisoning her, too. These days, unless I happen to be at the Chelsea Arts Club, an establishment which actively encourages smoking among its free-thinking membership, my half coronas have become a solitary vice.

Like many parents, I thought I knew where I stood on the smoking issue. It was a nasty, unhealthy habit promoted by a sleazy multinational industry that would do anything to addict children and exploit their vulnerability, even unto death. When the Court of Appeal recently overturned an injunction brought by tobacco companies opposing the Government's plan to ban the last vestiges of advertising, it seemed like a vote for common sense.

Subtly, we are told, these loathsome, greedy businessmen - somehow, I imagine them as dead-eyed, Times-reading middle-aged men with trim mock- Tudor houses in the Home Counties - have been engaged in a propaganda war. They put hidden messages on Damon Hill's Jordan. They encouraged Sharon Stone to smoke during her famous knickerless interrogation scene in Basic Instinct. They must be stopped.

But now suddenly, as with so many other things, I am not so sure. Propaganda? No campaign has ever been more effective than that waged by thousands of sincere, good-hearted teachers at primary and secondary schools. Overnight, it seemed, the anti-tobacco lobby had at least one ardent, fanatical campaigner in every family home, squeaking earnest objections at the first flare of a match, sniffing the air for unacceptable smells, haranguing their exhausted parents if they dared to light up at the end of the day.

Fathers, banished from their homes, took to smoking guiltily at the end of the garden. Bravely, I would lock myself away in my study, ignoring the pleas of my children who were convinced Daddy was killing himself, but many parents - not addicts, who were beyond help, but recreational users - succumbed to the pressure.

Years on, and what has happened? The children, now grown, puff away happily while the old folk, guilt having entered the bloodstream, complain ineffectively. Perhaps those smoking film stars were to blame, although somehow it seems unlikely that Sharon and her basic instinct drove teenage girls to smoke any more than she encouraged them to dispense with underwear when in trouble with the police.

The awkward truth is that smoking is cool. While the hard cases - Wheezing Willies unable to finish a meal without a cigarette, Fag-End Friedas who smoke before, after and even during sex - are depressing to be with, so are the new puritans.

I have no wish to be an apologist for the creepy tobacco industry and sympathise with those who suffer from a smoke-related illness. I hope my children will, like me, grow out of cigarettes, and I think they will. But, as the great posse of public health enthusiasts chase Marlboro Man out of town, I can't help feeling that the person who lights up in this great age of disapproval is, paradoxically, exercising a small, significant vote for life.