Talking about my nicotine-stained generation

Young women smoke to keep their weight down. Young men smoke because they are nervous
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is calling for a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, and anti-tobacco zealots are expecting that the ban will have smokers coughing and spluttering indignantly.

Tony Blair is calling for a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, and anti-tobacco zealots are expecting that the ban will have smokers coughing and spluttering indignantly. Forest, the pro-smoking lobby, has already obliged with a good amount of angry expectoration. But most smokers, I predict, will simply knock the ash from their cigarettes with a nonchalant tap and go back to doing their homework.

For it is an unpalatable truth that the demographic most likely to smoke is aged under 25. Older people tend to see smoking for what it is, quitting as they become pregnant, aware of their own mortality, of their skin damage. They begin to read the clinging odour as an indicator of weakness or neurosis - a smoke sign, if you will. With age comes wisdom and nicotine patches. But for people of my age, no such logic obtains.

"Darling" says my mother down the telephone. "Please don't ever smoke, will you?" Then I hear the tiny rush of inhalation in her throat and the faint, unmistakable fizzling noise of a cigarette paper burning down. "Mmmm" I reply, guiltily. I've grown up with many advantages that she didn't have - explicit knowledge of the harm smoking does, of its addictive power, as well as the additional bonus of extortionate pricing and anti-vertisments - and yet, there I am on the other end of the telephone, also puffing away.

Most of my friends and I are accomplished, uninhibited smokers. We are proficient, we are dedicated, and we all deserve a gold star from the Marlboro Man. (Actually, he did once send me a calendar after I gave him my address in exchange for a free pack. Being a schoolgirl, I was rather pleased with this gift and put it on my wall.)

Marlboro will be pleased to know that we are well prepared to withstand the ban, having ample experience of squatting in drafty doorways and discreetly puffing "out the back" at smoking speakeasies. I imagine that when tobacco prohibition hits London, my friends and I will simply resume the procedure we practised during our A-levels: find a friendly café ("Hatties") with the right amenities (a sheltered rear-facing bin bay) and the right price in protection money (50p for a Ribena). A nice little transaction; suits all concerned.

Addicts will always find a way of circumventing bans, and the ban on smoking in the UK will be no different. But what is surprising to me is that so many young people are addicted in the first place. Is it because, due to deep residual memories of the days before tobacco advertising was banned, we know that "Happiness is..." not a warm puppy but a Hamlet cigar? Is it because of our morbid fear of getting fat? Young women smoke to keep their weight down (a cigarette before lunchtime dramatically curbs the appetite). Young men smoke because they are nervous. Young people smoke because they feel invincible, because they want to test how far they can push their bodies before they rebel. Role models also contribute: a young woman recently told me that if she had to make a difficult decision she first asked herself, "What would Kate Moss do?" And since Ms Moss is a woman with an alleged 80 cigarettes to get through per day, the answer the young fan dependably hears is "have a fag".

Perhaps we smoke because, as members of the most affluent, protected, cosseted generations in history, we are bored and looking for a thrill. This is why "Death" cigarettes were popular, why fags are commonly called "cancer sticks", why people stick labels saying "Exercise. Eat right. Die Anyway." over the unsightly new "Smoking Kills" warnings.

And, perhaps also because cigarettes are such stealthy, incremental drugs, one hit does not make you into a pariah. Your mother feels like she's overreacting if she bawls the house down; your teachers cannot expel you. Cigarettes occupy a seductive social placing, somewhere left of centre but within well within the bounds of acceptability.

I remember the thrill when I went up for my university interview and found a towel and a tin-foil ashtray laid out in readiness on my bed. It seemed like a permission note from the institution, and my friends and I went on to enjoy many comfortable post-prandial cigarettes on the lawn. The fact that the master of our college was an eminent oncologist didn't seem to bother us much, even though we knew that from his desk in his bay-windowed study he could probably see us, puffing and giggling.

Although I regret the fact that Sir Walter Bodmer had to step over the discarded cigarette butts with which we strewed his college, I do not regret the fact that smoking was not banned at university, nor in public spaces when I was growing up. Although such a ban would have made smoking less easy, less mainstream and less acceptable, it would not have cured our habit. For the decision to smoke or not to smoke surely should be one's own.

It comes down to the old dichotomy between legislation and self-discipline. To bully smokers is crude and the benefits short term. Ultimately, only a personal epiphany, a genuine change of heart is going to make a smoker quit. And, since I'm glad to say neither a city-wide smoking ban nor my personal epiphany have yet arrived, I don't mind if I do. Got a light?

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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