Letter from Simon Kelner: Where does urge to puff come from?


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I am not in the least judgmental, but I have to say I am dismayed by the number of young people I see smoking. Dismayed, but also jealous.

I watch them, those 20-somethings, puffing away – trying to look cool and gorgeous – and know that they've got plenty of time to quit. And, of course, they will, given how few people of, say, double their age still smoke.

I gave up smoking two years ago, but only when I had a brush with mortality that made continuing with my Marlboro Light habit reckless in the extreme. I'd tried everything, including two sessions with the great hypnotist Paul McKenna, who can make fat people thin and turn wimps into masters of the universe, but couldn't crack my addiction.

I gave up more times than Frank Sinatra retired and was only encouraged by the thought that the more times you quit, the easier it is to quit.

Because almost every smoker of a certain age wants nothing more than to give up. That's why we always had those disposable lighters: no point in buying an expensive lighter when I'll be stopping smoking tomorrow. But why had I started in the first place?

I pondered this again with the news of a survey which claims to prove that adolescents take up smoking as a result of being exposed to the "pervasive and highly damaging imagery" of film stars lighting up cigarettes. So was it watching Casablanca in my teens that did it for me? There should, however, be a health warning on this survey like the ones on packs of 20.

The research, published in a journal that focuses on respiratory illnesses and seized upon by the UK Centre for Tobacco Control, appears highly partisan. And I wonder how seriously we should take it.

Are we supposed to believed that watching Betty Draper in Mad Men puff away while she's doing the washing-up is a swing factor in the rise of young female smokers? Rather the reverse, I would think. Almost everyone in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sparks up at regular intervals, but will 15-year-olds rush out to the fag shop as a result? Of course not. They are much more likely to be influenced by their friends and family. Might as well try to regulate peer pressure.

Anti-smoking groups now want any film that contains a cigarette to be classified as 18 and think we should regard smoking as dangerous in its imagery as hard drugs or violence. What next? Ban drinking in movies? Hey, Sam, fix me a Diet Coke! And open the window. I think someone's been smoking in here.