They are an increasingly rare breed these days, it's true, but you can spot them still, even now, a dogged blight on our otherwise Keep Britain Tidy streets.
Collectively, they possess a furtive air, congregating in twos and threes, sometimes speaking but just as often not and in whatever the weather. And when they make for their pockets, it is not a gun they are reaching for but something that is, statistically, more dangerous yet: a cigarette. The relief, once it reaches their mouths, is indecently evident. They light, they suck and perhaps even splutter, but in doing so they reach a level of satisfaction that seems unattainable to the rest of us.
We tend, this far into the 21st century, to give smokers a wide berth and regard them with a mixture of pity and revulsion. But consider, for a moment, the plight of your average nicotine addict today. Though they partake in something no more illegal than the wearing of flares, the level of opprobrium directed towards them is astonishing. We shun and mock them, we accuse them of killing themselves and, worse, of killing us too, the bastards. Shouldn't they have been stopped by now?
We have just seen the fourth anniversary of the nationwide smoking ban. A smoke-free society is, for many of us, bliss, but not for everyone. Dry cleaners have felt the impact – our clothes no longer smell after a night out the way they once did – but then so too have countless pubs and clubs, many having gone out of business as a result. A Bill has just been introduced to ban smoking in cars carrying children and smokers are increasingly concerned that one day their habit will be outlawed at home as well. And last week the village of Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes launched a campaign to ban smoking on the street.
Very soon, these people will have nowhere left to go. But that's a good thing. Right?
There is an amusing story smokers like to tell about just how ridiculous the level of anti-smoking sentiment is these days. The last time James Bond was seen puffing away on screen (when he was still played by Pierce Brosnan), the anti-smoking lobby were outraged at such blatant glorification of nicotine. No mention was made of his serial promiscuity, nor that he drove his car in excess of the speed limit, or even his relish for killing good, honest Russians. But lighting up in public? How dare he? For Simon Clark, spokesman for Forest (the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco), this merely illustrates just how mad the world has become.
"There was a 'publicly funded' anti-smoking campaign recently that went 'If you smoke, you stink'," he tells me.
"Presumably you wouldn't be able to get away with: 'If you're fat, you're ugly', because that would be rude; insensitive. Nevertheless, it's become perfectly acceptable to persecute, and denigrate, smokers. But it shouldn't be. It's wrong."
And that is why, essentially, Forest – a smokers' pressure group founded 30 years ago by a pipe-chomping former Battle of Britain hero and funded by the tobacco industry – exists today: to give voice to, and to stick up for, people that feel they have lost a portion of their civil liberties. Tobacco companies, banned from advertising, banned from sponsorships, these days remain silent behemoths lurking like nicotine-addled Willy Wonkas within their evil lairs. Approach them today with the offer of a measured, balanced interview, and you will be greeted by a stony silence – for fear, I later learn, of a smear campaign, because why else, frankly, would anyone wish to speak to tobacco companies if not to berate them?
Forest's Simon Clark is, perhaps surprisingly, a lifelong non-smoker. An entirely reasonable and seemingly sane man, he readily accepts that smoking is bad for you. It can kill. But his argument – and Forest's – is that all sorts of things are bad for you: too much fast food, too much alcohol, an enthusiasm for quad bikes.
"We live today in an over-regulated society in which the government interferes in every level of our lives," he says. "This used to be a nanny state. It's a bullying one now. I was in Austria recently for a smokers' conference and it was all so fantastically civilised. The coffee houses have indoor smoking areas, but they also have something else we don't: decent ventilation. That's all we need. As a non-smoker, I can tell you that the smoke didn't bother me, nor any of my fellow non-smokers. We all sat side-by-side. Now, tell me, why can't we live like that?"
The reasons, government health warnings (and cigarette packets themselves), will tell you is simple: health. Your habit will harm you – and us as well. Passive smoking, meanwhile, can cause asthma, cot death, heart attack. This is cold, hard, Royal College of Physicians-endorsed fact. Not that some smokers will ever accept it.
Sir Ronald Harwood, the 76-year-old, Oscar-winning screenwriter whose credits include The Pianist, believes it to be exaggeration: "It's simply a fascist impulse to control society," he says to me, his rich, throaty voice lined with 63 years' worth of tobacco flakes.
"And that's why I resist quitting. I enjoy it, so why should the government have a say in my personal choice?"
It is the hypocrisy of it, he continues, that so grates. "You can take a drink into the theatre, but not a cigarette. Why? I'm a non-drinker; I hate the smell of beer. I also happen to find the scents some ladies wear appalling, but I would never legislate that they shouldn't wear it. So why should they have a say in whether I smoke or not?"
Singer-songwriter Joe Jackson lived in New York until its 2003 smoking ban drove him back to Britain. In 2007, he fled again. "How did all the No Fun people get to be in charge?" he laughs mordantly. "I'm convinced we are no longer really safe anywhere, but I've been living in Berlin for three years now and I find it much freer and more relaxed than London."
Jackson, a vigorous campaigner for smokers' rights for some time now, would much rather quietly smoke than campaign, but needs must. "And every time I do, I get hate mail," he says. "Things like: 'How dare you pollute our world with your disgusting habit. I hope you get cancer. I hope you die!'"
What most people fail to realise about smokers, Jackson points out, "is that we are considerate people too, just like the rest of society". In other words, they don't, as a rule, go round blowing smoke into children's faces and rarely, if ever, light up where they shouldn't. So where is the problem?" The trouble is – he, and people like him, are fast becoming an anachronism as more and more kick the habit. In the 1950s, 60 per cent of us smoked. That figure now hovers around 20 per cent. This is because, Simon Clark says, we've heeded the health warnings. Those that continue to smoke do so purely because they want to, but the extent of the ban is, they feel, unnecessary, and, worse, draconian. And yet new extremes continue to be mooted. Joe Jackson tells me that in certain parts of California, it is now illegal for apartment-dwellers to smoke at home, "lest their evil fumes get through the walls. It's ridiculous".
But the weight of opinion remains against him. Ash, the Action on Smoking and Health group, works hard to ensure that government policy and peer pressure continues until everyone has seen sense.
On online forums, meanwhile, there continues a pitched battle between those pro and those anti, each disclaiming the others' findings.
"There is a lot of cognitive dissonance going on," says Ash's Martin Dockrell. "To accept that smoking can be a major cause of, say, cot death would be to suggest that smokers might just play a role in that death and so they deny it; they ignore all the evidence and never accept it. But the science is there."
It is. The Royal College of Physicians also reminds us that 80,000 people die from smoking-related causes every year, which is more than the next five avoidable causes of death – alcohol, obesity, HIV, drug use and road traffic accidents – combined. Most people who smoke, according to Ash, wish they never started and want help to stop. "That is our primary goal," says Dockrell. "To help those that want to quit." And it is why, he adds, so many awareness campaigns might seem like bullying, in order to target those points that most resonate with the average smoker: family issues, health, smell.
Like Simon Clark, I too am a life-long non-smoker, though I did try, valiantly, between the ages of 14 and 16 to become a hardened addict. It never took. I grew up with a mother who was a reluctant smoker, though never reluctant enough not to take severe umbrage whenever I hid her cigarettes in attempt to "help" her quit.
Back when I still had any powers of persuasion over my wife, I pleaded with her to stop and was grateful when she did. But I would never hector my smoker friends to do likewise. What they do in their own time and, ideally, on their own turf, is nothing to do with me. Besides, if I started to attack all their habits that annoyed me, then where would it end?
And what, amid all this, of the cigarette itself? It must be having the last laugh, because surely it has never been quite so illicit as it is now, and, therefore, quite so ineffably cool. Why else would Lady Gaga flaunt one on the Thierry Mugler catwalk at Paris Fashion Week, as she did recently, if not to cause offence? The cigarette has, to all intents and purposes been banned from the big screen, and only baddies are permitted to smoke in films now, the moment they light up confirmation that they'll die before the end credits roll. On television, meanwhile, the only reason Mad Men get away with it is because they are from the 1960s, that gilded era of blissful naivete. Don Draper probably ended up looking like Sid James. Still gloriously iconic, then, sexy even, but you do wonder whether, ultimately, the cigarette can survive. Martin Dockrell thinks it unlikely: "Looking at the statistics," he says, "it is hard to come to any other conclusion: eventually, everyone will choose to stop."
But smokers are hardy souls and clearly aren't about to go down without a fight. At the end of last week, a couple of hundred pub landlords and sympathetic individuals took their Amend the Smoking Ban campaign to the House of Commons. They gathered, older men mostly, on the Terrace Pavilion – where smoking was permitted but, curiously, no ashtrays provided; bad news for the Thames, into which countless butts were carelessly cast – to hear MPs from each of the three main parties extol the virtues of civil liberty and the good sense of re-introducing separate smoking rooms in bars and clubs. The artist David Hockney then took the podium to gripe about a "mean-spirited" law, and how he was sick of "all the curtain-sniffers".
It was Simon Clark who had the final say: "We'll be back here again next year and the year after that and the year after that, until the ban is amended," he said, to rousing cheers and the raising of the room's collective cigarettes, cigars and pipes, their beer and wine glasses. "We're human beings," somebody says to me on the way out. "We like vice."