My friend was doing up her flat last week and found a packet of Woodbines beneath the floorboards. It was exciting, like a message in a bottle from a lost generation; a sudden whiff of the desires of somebody who got to her home before she did. In the same week, Australia banned the branding on cigarettes, so all of their smokes must now come in the same, dull, regulation packets. An olive green affair with a photo of a tobacco-addled throat or a breathless premature baby where the logos used to be, and a teeny brand name. The British government is considering doing the same, so the accidental archaeologists of the future will need a magnifying glass to know if their builders smoked B&H or Silk Cut or menthols. The tobacco industry is protesting, naturally, and even a spokesman for corner shops says this will make it harder for the staff to work out what's on the shelf, increasing the time it takes to serve you. Which is probably half the point. Without branding, how will you even know what to want?
Oh I'd love to say that nobody smokes because it's cool or has associations with cool things or colours or places or moods. I'd particularly love to pretend that, as a 36-year-old occasional friend of fags, I find the illicit thrill of sometimes harbouring a pack of Marlboro Lights in my handbag does nothing for me. That I in no way imagine myself to be Kate Moss while puffing langourously on one. But when I imagine that white and gold design replaced by something that looks one part NHS specs, one part prescription methadone, and picture it inside my handbag, my interest crumbles. A branded packet is something that you want. Once those names and pictures are gone, and you're still buying, there's no wanting any more. You just need.
Part of Alan Carr's technique, in his Easy Way To Stop Smoking, is to make you ask yourself when you first decided to be a smoker. Not when you first smoked, but when you chose to be A Smoker. The more Carr bangs on about it, and you think about somebody in a windy bus stop trying to make the match stay alight for long enough to light that cancer-stick in his mouth, you realise you never wanted to be that person. It disturbs you. This smoking is just a flirtation with the activities of others, for a while. A smoker's life. That isn't you.
In the Olympic Park, where the branding wars were so far-fetched that you could buy things to eat other than McDonald's, and things to drink other than Coke, but you couldn't call them by their name, my friend and I enjoyed glasses of Number One Fruit Cup. It tasted awfully like Pimms, despite sounding like something lost in translation back from Chinese characters. And yet, the experience wasn't ridiculous. It was somehow liberating. I came to enjoy being in this brandless world, eating my Mexican food from the shop marked Mexican Food, blissfully unaware of exactly who had marketed it to me. Could the brandlessness of fags backfire, and give them added cool?
My friend Rose once went on a haphazard sort of date with a man who worked at an anti-smoking charity. As they left the pub, drunk, they suddenly craved cigarettes, so he took her to his office and rummaged through the demonstration materials until he had extricated a spare fag from the sponge and plastic bottle contraption representing a lung. God, how they loved that fag. Cigarettes are a perversion, so it's hard to say what the perverts will do with them next.
So I feel that at this time of spiritual crisis in being an occasional fag-puffer, that I'll have to revisit the true meaning of being a social smoker. I'll stop buying them altogether and smoke other people's instead.