In California, smokers are social outcasts. When Oliver Bennett spent two weeks puffing along with them on doorsteps, he soon found out why

IT HAS been said that smokers have an unfair advantage in the workplace. This newly-minted myth claims that the fag-ash Larrys and Lils of the office get first break on all the good gossip as they wallow in the filth of the smoking room, or as they gather in repulsive, yellow- faced covens in the office doorway.

But smoking visitors to California - which in its ban on lighting up in public places has provided a foretaste for the rest of the world - can give this romantic notion short shrift. Here has arisen a situation where smokers are the only statistical minority that quite deserves to be labelled an underclass. For all their rote croaking about "rights", smokers are the runts of the litter, as weak in conversational and courtesy skills as they are in the will to quit. Their annexing in the bars and restaurants of California tends to have the splendid effect of hiving off the weirdos, oddballs and spooks into an avoidable space: usually outside either side of the front door. One must add that the death of the cigarette in American society has been exaggerated: there are quite often several people fuming outside the bar. But don't believe what they tell you about smokers being the interesting ones.

Being English and a "social" smoker I prepared to spend a two-week break in California standing outside having fascinating conversations with exciting people in the heat of the spring night, only occasionally having to jump away from the spatter of drive-by fire. This was where the players stood, I was led to understand, where you made deals. But no - by the end I had practically given up cigarettes, yelling "take them away". The problem was not all the exciting new brands of natural, no-additive tobacco - best tabs in the world, in my opinion - it was my fellow smokers. Californian smokers are a great incentive to give up.

My first experience was on a pub crawl in San Francisco. In one bar I noticed the delicious paradox of marijuana being smoked inside the bar - sans tobacco in the American way - while the only fag smoke was outside. But as I joined the shower outside the bar, who all seemed to be basking in that strange, contemporary smokers' state of mind that one might dub "outwardly-directed self-hatred", I rapidly came to see the sense of the purified interiors of SF public life.

"Hi, smoker! We're a dying breed, right? Got a light?" A smoker rolled up, and engaged my friend and me in light conversation. "I used to be a street person, and now I'm a successful designer of cashless money systems," he continued. "Hey, actually I'm kind of lonesome tonight. Can I buy you a drink?" Fine; except that every few sips, always halfway through one of my sentences, our new companion would rush off to smoke another one. "You said something," was his gambit on return, never quite catching our eyes. "Oh, don't worry," I said. "I think we've got to go and eat now."

But in the next bar it was even worse, as the only smokers outside were a group of superannuated ex-football jock types who were amused by a woman in the bar. "They ain't real," said top Jack. "Naw," said his companion. "When she jumps up, they stay in the same place, man." What were they on about, rambling in this vein for about 15 minutes? "Like her titties are fuckin' silicon, man. Hu hu!" Now I love to talk dirty, but this was sheer desperation.

Then out came the woman in question. "Gimme a cigarette," she said. "We smokers are a dying breed, right! I'm going to find me a man tonight." Off she tottered, cig in claw, away from the jocks. "I've been divorced four times, and I've given up smoking eight times," she proudly stated.

In America, emotional incontinence seems to be linked with oral excess - obesity and cigarette craving - and they all seem to be part of the same crisis of abundance. In fact, one can see how cigarette smoking has become considered less a bad habit, more a personal psychopathology. Oh for the Italian cigarette, taken elegantly in a cafe; or even the English snout, happily sucked in the pub. In the US, one can believe in the cigarette as a kind of "bad" nipple.

At the next bar, a girl came up and wanted a light. Twenty minutes later, there she still was, " I say, I work at Taco Bell and it's kind of a cool job but I kind of want to do something different if I go back to school...", when the jocks walked up. "That Hillary Clinton, she's a fuckin' lesbian," one said to no one in particular. The smokers, about eight-strong now, fell silent as they contemplated this wisdom. We were then joined by a man who, upon lighting up, informed us gravely of his philosophy, which went: "We could die at any time, and so we might as well smoke if we want." This theme continued despite it being 11 o'clock on a Friday night. And sadly, this pattern continued for the next two weeks.

If this is a social Siberia, as smokers often claim, then perhaps Stalin was right.