Smoking is still so cool

How can it be that the weed is winning despite everything we know about its pernicious effect?
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The Independent Culture
SMOKING, GALLAHER announced breathlessly this week, became more popular in Britain last year for "the first time in living memory". Of course Gallaher has to announce everything breathlessly, because, after all, breathlessness is what the company sells.

The truth, however, is a little less worthy of a sharp intake (just as well, since ever fewer people in this country are capable of one), because actually smoking has increased in Britain merely for the first time since 1972. This kind of time-span is without the living memory of only the most enthusiastic of cannabis smokers, but nevertheless the statistic is sobering. How can it be that the weed is winning? How can it be, despite everything we now know about its pernicious effects on the human plumbing system, that smoking is cool?

One can bang on for ever about growing up, rebellion, laughing in the face of death and peer pressure. God knows plenty of people have. But maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe smoking is cool because it is powerful. And maybe it is powerful for the usual reasons. Because it is rich and famous.

I don't mean that it's rich and famous by association, just because glamorous people like Kate Moss can be seen puffing away as they check out of the rehab clinic (though undoubtedly all that stuff helps too). I mean because it's rich and famous in its own right.

Everyone knows that the tobacco companies make more than one kind of killing, that government exchequers across the western world would be spectacularly depleted without the tax raised on tobacco sales, that the dismantling of the tobacco industry would mean the loss of thousands of jobs and millions in exports. But it's the dominance of cigarettes and smoking in our media which seems staggering to me. Again, this isn't just famous actors with fags in their hands, it's on the news pages, the features pages, and of course, like this piece, the comment pages. Cigarettes and cigars are always big news.

While Frank Dobson has promised that tobacco advertising will be outlawed by the year 2000, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Any supplier will tell you that an inch of editorial is worth 10 adverts in the same paper. And not a day goes by without an interesting news story starring cigarettes. Smoking is proof, if proof were needed, that all publicity is good publicity.

For while these endless fag stories rarely seem terribly upbeat, they usually represent excellent news for some interested party or other, as well as promoting visibility and ensuring that the profile of smoking never flags. Today's tobacco-related news is particularly rich. It caters to several of the many parties who are involved in the tobacco industry, and connects with a goodly amount of related issues.

First, and most prosaically, Irish customs yesterday seized six million cigarettes from bootleggers. This is good news for Gallaher, which constantly bleats on about how fag-smugglers are ruining their profit margins, and how tobacco taxes ought to be lowered to protect the interests of upstanding and legitimate vendors of coffin nails, such as themselves.

Because the bootlegging problem has become so big in Britain, Gallaher has filed decreased profits for 1998, despite the rise in smoking. Therefore it has undertaken aggressive expansion in Ireland, and can now look forward to selling six million more fags than it might otherwise have managed. Er, hurrah.

Second, and of primary interest to all those poor sods who wish to stop smoking but can't, is the news that anti-depressants are twice as effective as nicotine patches at helping people to kick the habit. This comes hot on the heels of Glaxo-Wellcome's announcement that it is seeking permission from the EU to start selling Zyban in Europe.This drug, which was developed specifically to tackle the problems of nicotine withdrawal, has been available in the US since 1997 and is credited with getting more than one million Americans off the tabs.

There's also a vaccine under development by a British company, Cantab Pharmaceuticals, which blocks nicotine's effect on the brain, thus making smoking even more pointless. But it isn't only reluctant puffers who are cheered by this kind of story; it's also good news for potential smokers. Why avoid starting, when so many people are willing to help you when you decide to stop?

Third, and of the utmost fascination for those who distrust New Labour as a fun but harmless hobby, is a statement from Health minister Tessa Jowell on tobacco sponsorship. Who cares what she's got to say about it? She's part of the Government which has managed to buck the decline in smoking for the first time in 26 years.

This was, of course, despite all best intentions, but nevertheless New Labour has found itself embroiled in not one but two smoking-related sleaze scandals during its short tenure.

The first occurred early in New Labour's reign, when the party went out, all guns blazing, to ban the sponsorship of sport by tobacco companies - well, except in Formula One racing. While this was in no way related to Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone's gift of pounds 1m to the Labour Party, they gave the money back anyway.

The second came at the end of last year, when New Labour admirably made plans to provide nicotine patches on the NHS as part of its pounds 100m initiative to crack down on smoking. The trouble came when it emerged that the Swiss company, Novartis, one of the Labour Party's major sponsors, was lined up for the multi-million pound contract to supply the patches.

Poor old New Labour, stopped in its tracks by the power of fags. Why? Because they are rich and famous. That's why New Labour, and other well- intentioned governments, find it so hard to stub them out.

So what's to be done about it? It's tempting to say, absolutely nothing. Around 120,000 people die of lung cancer in this country every year, and libertarians are constantly pointing out that that's their affair. Those concerned with the common weal will then cry that all this disease costs the NHS a fortune, but since diverting all the tax raised on tobacco sales to the NHS will more than compensate for that, this isn't such a shocking abuse of the health service as it may seem.

But there are good reasons why the fight against tobacco should remain a shibboleth of social democracy, primarily that if we can't work out how to turn people off from cigarettes, then we're not going to stamp out other similar and more serious drug abuses either. (The latter also shows that making cigarettes illegal isn't a solution either. Then there really will be a major threat to the fabric of society.)

Health warnings on cigarette packets have worked well in the past, although the dedicated smoker can always ask his friendly newsagent for a pack which tells you that "Smoking while pregnant can harm your baby". That's not much of a turn-off if you're not pregnant, and none of the others are either, if you can keep them out of your sightline while having a puff.

What about stepping up the health-warning campaign and printing "I'm a self-destructive fool" down the side of every cigarette? Or just riding it out until riches and fame go out of fashion?

Me, I've been smoking for nearly 20 years now, and not a day has gone by when I haven't considered what a good idea it would be to stop. But now it looks like that may not be the case. I'm going to pin my hopes on Zyban.

But what I really need is a drug that will stop me from believing, in some burned-out corner of my addled brain, that cigarettes are my friends and they'd never do anything that would harm me.