Let smokers co-opt the nicotine patch and turn the sign of the pariah into a mark of pride

I should have seen what we despised minorities had in common earlier, only smoke got in my eyes. And in my ears, for surely the shared slang alone ought to have filter-tipped me off to our tortured bond.

Cough, hack, spit it out: cigarette "packet". Cigarette "butt". "Passive" smoker. Smoke "ring". "Fag." See? And then there's the eerily interchangeable abuse flung at both put-upon parties. Your starter for 10 Marlboro Lights: is it those who swallow or those who inhale being dissed here?

"What they do in the privacy of their own homes is their own business, but I won't have them doing it around me ..." "I'm a tolerant sort of person ..." "It's a disgusting practice ..."

Tough. It could be us. It could be them. It could be you. Have a few more clues.

We target children. We lure the sweet innocents round the back of the bike sheds, there to persuade them that taking it in the mouth is perfectly natural. It's CORRUPTION. That's why laws have been, must be, passed to stop the wilful advertisement of this ... dare I say cancer? Tumour? Growth industry?

Whatever, the moral guardians must protect the young from the terrible burden of (ho hum) choice. Sickos will not be permitted to promote their unspeakable vice, which is, as the world knows, not just a health hazard, but potentially a slow and painful death sentence - what you might call The Lung Goodbye.

Yah boo, suckers. We were discussing puffers, not pouters, all along. In many ways, we pervs are actually better off than worshippers of the demon weed. As we make that final pelvic thrust into the generously lubricated mainstream - yes! yes! don't stop it now, baby! - smokers are being summarily banished to the margins to take our shameful place. It's flaming obvious. It can't be long before gay men won't be arrested for kissing in public, while those who light up their lives will be threatened with jail, or worse; being forcibly switched to Menthols.

How thrilling, then, to see smokers grasp the connection too, and blithely reinvent themselves as an oppressed subculture. The lighters may be going out all over Europe, but, blow me, in America smokers have shrewdly decided that they're bravely fighting for their right to erotic free expression.

Hence Smoke Signals, a magazine devoted to ... oral sex is the sole fitting phrase. Smoke Signals reproduces loving pictures of male and female wrapping their laughing gear around thin, phallic tobacco sticks of infinite delight, running reviews of Hollywood flicks focusing solely on the slow-burn scenes, and letters that indignantly dwell on the daily bigotry that the misunderstood encounter in a disapproving society.

Fixated? Fetishistic? Exploiting the allure of the forbidden, and, more to the point, the appeal of the glamorous known? Round-up the usual suspects: Bogie, Bacall, Bette, Dietrich. Silver-screen icons now haunting smokers' Internet sites and staring down from smokers' club walls, talked about in these tucked-away dens of iniquity as if they belonged not to the Golden Age of Hollywood but to the Golden Age of the Greeks; that long-ago time when what you did wasn't who you were and the currently crapped-on could be perfectly public, instead of feeling increasingly condemned to a strange twilight world. Never mind. Let the videos play. Sorority Girls Smoke, Smoky Kisses and Paula, and Don't Wait to Exhale, particularly the latter, 30 hot minutes of a pouting blonde in a backless black evening gown giving lip service to an embarrassingly long cigarette holder. Work it, girl! And work it in full knowledge that Richard Klein's Cigarettes are Sublime, the bible of the emerging politics, has already unfurled a political manifesto heavy on literally burning libido while artfully modelling itself on earlier resistance movements. Cop the reviews: "In the end the book is an argument for the quality of life over mere longevity, and is a plea for tolerance and for the acknowledgement of the richness and diversity of human tastes."

You get the message: smokers are Virtually Normal. And where academic footnoting fails, art steps in. Hence the rise and rise of smokers' literature, such as Richard Beard's X 20, a toast of a tome that tells of one man's struggle against his true nature and how he eventually huffs and puffs and blows his own house down (very Jungian), abandoning himself to the rite and ritual of it: the hot little red head of the match, the spurt of flame, lips open wide, deep throat, release, ecstasy. And why? Just for the taste of it.

Which is going so far, but not far enough. What smokers need at this delicate stage of transition from environmental threat to brave underdog is a symbol of Otherness to rally round. As gay politics took the Nazi's pink triangle and made the stigmata its own (even though it clashes with everything) may I suggest that smokers co-opt the nicotine patch and turn the sign of the pariah into a mark of pride? Pull on that Virginia Slim at the next restaurant you visit and chant, chant, chant your slogan: workers ignite. If others have nearly won the right to put who they like into their bodies, you can certainly hold on to your right to put what you like into yours. So whenever some self-righteous instrument of the system orders you to "put that out", just remind him of the plain, unvarnished truth that always seems to escape the dominant ideology: they've had worse things in their mouths. And, brothers and sisters, if that fails, just tell them to kiss your ash

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