Smoking looks glamorous, keeps you slim, and gives you something to do with your hands, says Virginia Ironside, born-again smoker
When I was young I used to smoke furtively, at least in my parents' home. I used to puff out of the window on freezing nights, or offer to run shopping errands in order to get a quick fix. Now, after giving up for 20 years, I find myself, extraordinarily, doing the same.

For I am a two-month-old born again smoker, and smoking the second time around is quite a different ball-game. This time everyone disapproves, not just my mum and dad.

Born again smoking became de rigueur in my circle about two years ago. Middle-aged women who had given up smoking and carefully spent their pregnancies never puffing a fag, and 20 years setting a good example to their children, were suddenly set free to indulge all their vices again. And of course one's children don't help. It was my son saying suddenly, in the middle of a meal: "Look mum, it's ridiculous for me to keep this a secret. I smoke. Do you mind if I have one now?" and then carefully rolling his own, that tempted me. "Give us a puff," I said, just to show I didn't mind. And heavens it tasted good.

Yes, I'm sure my mouth tastes of ashtrays, but what is wrong with the taste of ashtrays? Kissers swoon when they take me in their arms. "You smell of cigarettes," they murmur, blissfully, wistfully remembering their own smoking days. Yes the house is a bit pongy in the mornings, but another fag soon puts that right and knocks the smellbuds into place.

The worst are, of course, the anti-smoking police, though in the last two months I've not come across any except in New York, where the sight of an ashtray in a bar makes one just know one's come to the right place, where all the fun people are. In my day my mother used to say it was very "common" to smoke in the street. In New York it's very bad-mannered to smoke anywhere else. Indeed, the anti-smoking campaign has produced its own revolution. Cigar bars are popular, a feature called Celebrity Smokers nailed those who smoke and are glamorous with it, and Cigar Aficionado is a successful magazine that promotes smoking. Here, whenever I ask in a house if it's okay to light up, the answer has always been one of relief. "Of course!" they say, "I just love the smell! I suppose you haven't got one to spare have you? I've taken to having the odd one..." All this doesn't stop me feeling so inhibited that sometimes I've asked people if they mind my smoking when I'm in my own house.

Of course I long for the old days, the days of Craven A, a very curious title for a cigarette, Players, with the George 7th look-alike on the front, Black Cat, whose tail swirled around the front, Passing Clouds, the yellow-covered Goldflake and Woodbines, decorated with an art nouveau design of bindweed. "Ten Woodies please" - that's what I used to ask for in the old days. Ciggies even had shortened, affectionate names.

Still, I do remember cigarettes being, in those days, a social prop. Nowadays they're pure, positive pleasure. Born again smokers savour every single cigarette. The old chestnut that eventually you don't enjoy them any more is so much rubbish. So far, every one of the 15 a day I'm getting through gives me a thrill - the thrill of wasting money, the thrill of putting two fingers up to the anti-smoking fascists, the thrill I've missed over the years. And now you can get all kinds of cigarettes of different strengths. I smoke a brand, Silk Cut Ultra - for 25 tokens you get a free silver-plated lighter - and each cigarette contains only 1mg of tar and 0.1mg of nicotine. Nothing. Smoking may cause fatal disease, as every packet announces, but there is a bit of evidence that a few provisos ought to be added, for there's some evidence that certain illnesses are more common among non-smokers. Acne is one, Alzheimer's disease, some cancers - cancer of the uterus, colon and prostate - Parkinson's disease, and ulcerative colitis. The incidence of osteoarthritis, trigeminal neuralgia, tumours in the central nervous system and diabetes is also smaller among smokers. "Experimental studies show that smoking tobacco is followed by stimulation of the nervous system, centrally as well as peripherally, intellectually as well as emotionally," writes Dr Tage Voss in his book Smoking and Common Sense (Peter Owen). "Smoking makes one clever, more efficient, brighter, more balanced, more harmonious, and more at ease."

And the effects of lung damage aren't frightening to a 53-year-old, since it takes several years to develop. Indeed, I'm rather worried about reports from Japan, the second heaviest smoking nation in the world, and still with the longest life expectancy.

Personally I think it looks glamorous. It keeps you slim. And not only that, it gives you something to do with your hands, as they used to say. So, to anyone who dares to cough pointedly when I light up I have only one answer. Like Bill Hicks, the American comedian (long-since dead of every kind of lung-cancer and emphysema, I'm afraid) I say: "That's a nasty cough you've got. You ought to take up smoking."