The anti-smoking fundamentalists

On No Smoking Day, Bryan Appleyard calls on healthists to let us fume in peace
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The Independent Online
Today is No Smoking Day and Munro & Forster Public Relations Ltd assure me that 2 million people will try to stop smoking. Of these, claim M&F, 700,000 will succeed in stopping "for the whole day" and around 50,000 will stop for good.

Do you believe this stuff? Neither do I. And I am sceptical of those figures still showing a decline in the number of smokers. Maybe fewer cigarettes are consumed, but I still have this suspicion that everybody who has ever smoked still smokes, and that means that, discounting a small percentage of nice, good people, everybody smokes.

My evidence comes from countless evenings spent among any group of people of more than, say, four. The evening will begin with everybody drinking and, perhaps, two smoking. Time passes and then one of the non-smokers will quietly weedle a fag out of one of the smokers and then another, to a rising tide of jeers, will do the same. I have seen hardened health freaks and embittered anti-tobacco campaigners succumb. Yet, if asked by researchers, these people will blandly insist that they do not smoke and so the statistics will be compiled.

"The statistically attested decline of smoking in America," says Richard Klein in his book Cigarettes are Sublime, "may mask what is undoubtedly, and progressively, a vast increase in the amount of secret smoking."

Klein's point - and it is a blindingly obvious one to grown-ups as opposed to healthists - is that forbidding a pleasure, issuing stern warnings about its perils, is the surest way to promote it. Tell a child that smoking is bad for him and he will be drawn into experiment, tell him that it will kill him and he will wonder when. In 50 years? Big deal. To most children growing old is a worse destiny than death. Tell an intelligent, imaginative adult that smoking is fatal and he will murmur: "Quite."

Klein wrote his book - just published in paperback - to give up smoking. He realised that the mere knowledge that cigarettes were bad for you was not enough. First you had to confront their real power and beauty. Cigarettes, he writes, "are a great and beautiful civilizing tool and one of America's proudest contributions to the world".

Look, for example, at the movie Casablanca in which every man smokes all the time. This was the film that turned Roosevelt against Vichy and aligned the United States with the Free French, a film that, therefore, went a long way to defeating Hitler. But Casablanca without cigarettes is unthinkable; Casablanca without cigarettes would be a fascist movie. Plus in every modern war the smoking soldier has been an icon of noble endurance, the very image of a man trapped between boredom and death.

Klein is overwhelmingly right to face and to anatomise with scholarly intensity the fact that cigarettes are sublime. They are not nice, they are not good, they are sublime in that they involve a confrontation with mortality, with the infinite. Long before the modern discoveries of their dangers, every smoker knew that tobacco was deadly. The jolt of the first drag of the day and the hundreds of little poisonous symptoms from coughing to nausea are all reminders that cigarettes are killing you. But that is not going to make the truly addicted stop, it is going to make them smoke more.

For addiction is a far more subtle, a far more intellectual phenomenon than mere chemical dependency. In Martin Amis's new novel, The Information, his addicted hero finds that he wants a cigarette even while he is smoking one. And, stuck in a non-smoking seat on a long-haul flight, he tries to survive by loading his bloodstream with nicotine via patches and chewing gum. But he still wants a cigarette - he is a cigarette and he wants a cigarette. Only that "little cylinder of delight" - Dennis Potter's phrase in his final interview - will answer the need.

Set against this perilous, cerebral seduction, the campaigns of the healthists appear astonishingly, absurdly crass. America, of course, leads the way. In New York restaurants smoking is now banned or smokers are driven into some super-air-conditioned ghetto. And Americans have accepted unquestioningly the dangers of passive smoking.

This is, of course, a lie. There is no evidence whatsoever of the dangers of passive smoking. It is merely a propaganda device to make smoking a public evil as opposed to a merely private vice. Without the passive smoking scare, there could be no argument against letting smokers kill themselves in peace. Smokers, for example, more than pay for their health care in taxes.

And, as Klein points out, the US government's posture is fabulously hypocritical. While running anti-smoking crusades, they also subsidise Virginia tobacco growers and actively encourage cigarette exports to the Third World. The Americans love nicotine just as they love fat, greasy unhealthy food. What nation is more obsessed with a healthy diet than any other? America. What is the fattest, grossest nation on earth? America. The pursuit of health makes you ill.

But why are the healthists so passionate? Why do we have a No Smoking Day? The answer is that the healthists are as addicted as the smokers and for similar reasons. Smoking provides both the smoker and the anti-smoker with an absolute.

For the smoker the perilous futility of smoking lies at the heart of his addiction. "A cigarette," said Oscar Wilde, "is the perfect type of the perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?" Each cigarette is an absolute failure, never providing the imagined fulfilment. This is why in the one great novel about smoking - Italo Svevo's The Confessions of Zeno - the hero ennobles each cigarette by insisting that it is his last. For Zeno deciding to stop smoking is the absolute condition of continuing to smoke.

Meanwhile, for the healthist campaigners, smoking is an absolute because they have apparently been provided with the clear evidence that it is absolutely wrong. Any such certainty is rare and precious and so, when one is found, it is seized upon with wild enthusiasm. Here, at last, is a visible, infinite, indisputable sin. Here, at last, is a reason to tell people how to behave. As the smoker loves his taste of mortality, so the anti-smoker loves his righteous war on death, the only evil he really knows.

"But hell," as Sean Connery says in The Untouchables, "you gotta die of something." And is smoking really so awful? Surely the pursuit of the impossible ideal of absolute health with its accompanying illusion of immortality is just as creepy, just as destructive?

Perhaps the sane response is this: smoking is, of course, very bad for you. Nobody in their right, rational mind with a clear view of their future would want to smoke. Equally, nobody would want their children to start. But we have all heard the bad, medical news and, now, we all believe it. The choice has been clear for some time. And it is highly unlikely that more healthist campaigns will make much difference. Indeed, it seems more probable that the ferocity of the opposition to smoking is giving tobacco a new lease of life as an even more perilous, even more deliciously subversive pleasure. The time has come for us to be left to quit in peace or maybe, late at night, to weedle just the odd fag from those poor, intoxicated souls still in thrall to the sublime futility of it all.

`Cigarettes are Sublime' by Richard Klein is published by Picador at £5.99.