If aliens were secretly watching the Earth, there are many things that would puzzle them about the behaviour of humans: commuting; quinoa; stilettos; Miley Cyrus …. But surely the most bizarre and illogical thing we do is smoking tobacco. If you've never seen it, look up the 1970s Bob Newhart sketch in which a 16th-century British government official talks to an excitable Walter Raleigh: "You can shred the leaves … put it in a little piece of paper … OK Walt, and then what do you do with it? Ha ha ha... you set fire to it, Walt?" I still find smoking just as baffling.
On Tuesday, we start Stoptober, an initiative launched by Public Health England to encourage people to quit, and helpfully the coolest man on the planet, Barack Obama, has just been overheard telling a UN official that he hasn't smoked for years. "That's because I'm scared of my wife," he confided. Rumour has it that Michelle Obama extracted a promise from her husband that if he insisted on risking assassination by running for president then he had to balance out his chances of an early death by giving up smoking. Now that's logical, brave and kind. (And there's a leader who would not be ashamed to call himself a feminist.)
As a non-smoker, I confess that I cannot understand what makes people smoke. It smells and tastes filthy, makes you feel sick (at first), gives you wrinkles and costs, I'm told, £8 for 20 cigarettes. (I double checked and it's true!) Also, if you smoke, the chances are that you will die of it, and die horribly. Smoking will reduce your life by an average of 14 years. Michelle Obama may be guilty of nagging her husband, but what's that compared to wilfully making yourself sicker and sicker and then leaving your children fatherless and the woman you love to spend her old age alone?
Research released last week by the Office for National Statistics shows that married people (14 per cent) are about half as likely to smoke as single people (27 per cent) and considerably less likely than cohabitees (33 per cent). I should hope so. When you commit to spend the rest of your life with someone, you should endeavour to make that life as long and as healthy as you can. It also showed that smoking rates are highest among the unemployed and people in lower paid jobs. I've heard the argument that the poor people should be allowed their simple pleasures, but really that is patronising and offensive claptrap.
Tobacco is the opium of the people, and the only people getting real pleasure from it are the ones charging £8 a packet for a slow and nasty death. The idea that smoking is relaxing is also ridiculous. Have you ever sat next to a smoker on a long flight?
I get it: tobacco is one of the hardest drugs to quit. Not impossible, but very, very hard. On the other hand, compared to losing a partner to an early and lingering death, it really can't be that bad. Please, smokers, pack it in this October, and never start again.