Laurie Penny: The smoking ban shows the best way to deal with addiction

It's key to understand that some addicts have a deep emotional connection to smoking


There are lots of terrible ways for a state to deal with drug abuse. There's total prohibition, pushing the trade underground and driving addicts into the hands of gang lords. Then come legal crackdowns as a way of entrenching social division, hunting down and locking up enormous swathes of young men and women from deprived backgrounds and pushing users to the margins of society. Those approaches work really well if you've got a class war to prosecute and a lot of empty prisons. They work less well, as Professor David Nutt explains in his new book, Drugs – Without the Hot Air, if you actually want to stop people stuffing themselves with dangerous chemicals.

Then there's the compassionate approach. Five years ago yesterday, the Government banned smoking almost everywhere it could. Despite the kvetching of addicts across the land, the cultural change has been enormous and largely positive – even for residual smokers. I started guzzling down dirty roll-ups by accident 18 months after the ban, and have loved the filthy little habit ever since, which is precisely why I'm trying to quit.

Because of the smoking ban, not only have I never had a cigarette in a club, a pub or a waiting room packed with people, it simply wouldn't occur to me to do so. If I want to poison myself in little glowing stages, that's my own lookout, but it's no longer polite to force others to do the same. Similarly, if I want the heart attack I'm 50 per cent more likely to have to be treated in a public hospital, I shouldn't whinge when an extra tax is slapped on my packet of artery-hardening death-sticks.

Imagine what would happen, though, if you really did ban tobacco. Nicotine is one of the most addictive, compelling and pointlessly dangerous of all common intoxicants, and even civilised people have been known to rummage through the bins in search of a nasty fag end when the shops are shut. Three days after tobacco prohibition, most of the major cities would be on fire, and nicotine addicts would be shambling through the streets mugging tourists for half-smoked Marlboros, red-eyed and shuddering from cold-turkey tremors, mass irritability taken to its logical conclusion of total social breakdown.

Right now, tobacco is precisely as illegal as it needs to be. It's just about illegal enough to make smoking tiresome and impolite, but not enough to stop people enjoying the taste of an early grave if that's what they really want. To my mind, that's a precious scrap of evidence that human beings can sometimes, in the face of an enormous corporate fightback that monetises our own worst habits, get things right. It is actually possible to work out reasonable solutions to intractable social problems and looming health crises without throwing large numbers of people in prison or, indeed, ruining anyone's fun.

Some smokers complain about having to stand in the cold when they could be fumigating themselves in enclosed spaces. To those people, I'd say: you're lying and you know it. Part of the point of smoking is solidarity with your fellow smokers, and now you have to huddle outside together in the English rain, you'll never be stuck for something to bitch about. Anyway, heart attack rates in the UK have fallen by as much as 26 per cent since the smoking ban started, so you will have your fag in the rain and you will like it. Breathe in those damp, sooty fumes. That's what social responsibility tastes like. Are you having fun yet?

In a capitalist world, smoking is a little sub-economy of communism. You share cigarettes, matches, lighters, papers. When strangers come up to you in the street and ask you for a cigarette, you give them one, because you understand. I once gave a homeless man half a Lucky Strike out of my own mouth, even though he was wearing a Libertarian T-shirt.

There's a sweetness to those brief, brilliant connections addicts make. It's the belief that we have anything in common other than wanting something that's bad for us. Yes, it says, I'm stupid and reckless and a little bit disgusting – and hey, so are you. Yes, it says, we're killing ourselves, but we're doing it together. Smoking is a different, darker social ritual now than it was 30 years ago, when some people could kid themselves that it was anything but a way of bartering present pleasure against the possibility of choking to death before one's time.

It is for this reason that the twin forces of romance and the smoking ban have conspired to produce the modern epidemic of Lovers' Lung – the tendency for two smokers, wishing to know one another biblically, to consume far more cigarettes than usual as an excuse to spend time alone. Every affair I've ever had has done more damage to my chest than it has to my heart, and as with sex and stupid haircuts, so with smoking: guilt and shame don't stop us, even when they should. What we seem to have here is a public health policy that actually understands human fragility, and manages it without useless cruelty.

Compassion is the key. Compassion, and understanding that some addicts have a deep emotional connection to smoking, even though we know – how can we not? – that it's a stupid thing to do. Smoking rates continue to decline gradually – smokers are now only 20 per cent of the population, down from 27 per cent at the end of the 1990s – but 50 per cent of people with a serious mental health disorder smoke more than a pack a day, compared with eight per cent of the rest of us. In fact, one of the few major failings of the smoking ban is its application to locked mental health wards, causing enormous stress to patients and their carers alike.

The electric cigarette, my personal quitting crutch, may yet save us. As a nerd, if there's anything more uncomplicatedly cool than a robot cigarette that exudes puffs of uplit nicotine vapour in glowing, silvery black, I've yet to hear about it. The only real drawback, apart from the insufferable smugness of addicts puffing – sorry, vaping – on our little battery-powered drug-delivery units in the warm, is that they do not taste of death. What's missing is the sharp burn at the back of your mouth, the soothing flavour of socially acceptable self-harm. Once people accept that that's all smoking really is, we may not be any closer to kicking the habit, but we'll understand a whole lot more about human beings.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?