Terence Blacker: Kick the bullies, not the habit


Related Topics

I felt a genuine pang of sadness at this week's news that Barack Obama has given up smoking. The pester-power of the women in his life, his wife and daughters, have apparently broken this proud man at last. Michelle Obama announced her triumph on American television.

How far we've come since tobacco was seen as one of life's bounties, something to be treasured. "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette," the old TV commercials once boasted. There were two songs called "Love is a Cigarette" which made the romantic case for tobacco. "And just like a cigarette," went one, "I never felt thrill of life until you touched my lips."

Smoking no longer represents the thrill of life, at least in respectable company. In fact, it has become an easy symbol of human weakness, self-indulgence and personal irresponsibility. During Obama's glory days as an occasional smoker, a writer in the Wall Street Journal asked, in all apparent seriousness, whether someone who confessed himself to be unable to give up smoking possessed "the intelligence, strength and human willpower to lead the most powerful nation on Earth".

Enough now, surely, of this primness. The sound of scolding and tut-tutting from the ranks of the concerned has become tedious. We know that smoking is bad for the health, but it is also true that people make choices in their lives involving the balance between risk and pleasure. It is not obligatory to put safety and longevity before all other considerations in daily life. These people are not lesser citizens, only different from the majority.

Increasingly, difference is something to be treasured. At a time of mass conformity, when disapproval is in the air we breathe, a political leader who dares to smoke now and then is not showing weakness but strength. The famous photograph of Obama taking a joyous drag on a cigarette while a student is warm, human and strangely life-affirming.

Although I happen not to smoke cigarettes myself, I find myself admiring those in public life who still defiantly spark up, even when cameras are around. They are striking a light for individuality. If, as a society, we now believe that the human and economic cost of nicotine addiction is unfeasibly high then we should ban the habit, and have done. After that, the Government should take a long, stern look at alcohol and its considerably worse effects on the way we live.

Most thinking people will conclude that making smoking illegal would be too much of an infringement on personal decision-making. In a similar spirit, the nagging should end. We now agree that smoking should not be promoted, that it should be kept away from children. Surely we are grown-up enough to accept that, if the most powerful man in the world likes now and then to relax with a cigarette, when safely away from the cameras, that should be his right.

Perhaps what really annoys the campaigners, and motivates their bullying of smokers, is not so much the thought of its effect as the pleasure it affords: a socially acceptable contemporary form of puritanism is at work.

In America, a new smoking substitute called the e-cigarette is already feeling the effect of the new primness. Battery-operated, it provides a nicotine fix in the form of vapour, without harmful tar or smoke. Tobacco firms are worried and, weirdly, are being helped by the anti-smoking lobby. Already there are attempts to ban the electronic cigarette on the grounds that its manufacture is unregulated. The real problem, one suspects, is that it is an uncomfortably accurate imitation of the real thing, that it gives an inappropriate amount of pleasure.

Whether his nicotine treat is electronic or the real smoking thing, I hope that Barack Obama quietly slips off the wagon as he has done in the past. He is, after all, president of the Land of the Free.

terblacker@blacker; twitter.com/terenceblacker

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions