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

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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.

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