In an interview on his 100th birthday someone asked the American jazz pianist Eubie Blake if he still smoked cigarettes. Sure, he said, but if he'd known he was going to live so long he'd have taken better care of himself. When my 80-year-old mother was taken to hospital after a car accident recently, the doctor, ticking off his questionnaire, asked if she smoked. She said "Yes, 40 a day, do you think I should give up?" "Certainly not," he replied. "The shock would probably kill you."
It goes without saying that, as the mother of an impressionable 13-year-old, I'm delighted that cigarette advertising has been banned. The fact that four of his five siblings, his mother and his grandmother smoke and he is therefore more likely to fall victim to this disgusting habit by default rather than by design is offset by the far more significant fact that his father doesn't smoke. But that's only two against six, I hear you protest, unless the head of our household has modelled himself on the Pontifex patriarchs, those tyrannical fathers created by the novelist Samuel Butler who bludgeoned their wives and children into cowering submission. Well, not quite, though he is Scottish.
It's not the strap he threatens us with: it's science. In a former incarnation my husband embraced psychology and drove every morning to a glitzy health farm in Hertfordshire where he offered a one-to-one aversion therapy course exclusively to smokers. It was based on the "no foal, no fee'' principle. If by the end of the week you hadn't stopped smoking you didn't pay. In the circumstances he had to make damn sure it did work, so as well as the electric shocks and the spiel he had to know the scientific facts inside out. His clients, by the way, included Frederick Forsyth, a member of U2 band and a huge number of sheikhs.
Mention idly that it is a shame that we will no longer be seeing those amusing Hamlet cigar commercials, or those clever B&H posters or those subtle Silk Cut ads, which never actually mentioned the name of the brand, and he will fix you with a glittering eye and blind you with science and statistics. Cigarette advertising, he says, isn't half truths, it's on a par with Goebbels' propaganda (ie blatant lies). Smoking is not at all smooth, cool, fresh and light. It is rough, hot, stale and heavy. Smokers aren't lean, tanned, athletic cowboys glorying in the great Marlboro Country outdoors. They're pallid, overweight coach potatoes, 25 per cent of whom will die seven years prematurely from smoking-related diseases.
Hold it right there Mr Pontifex. You're generalising. What about Eubie Blake and my mother, and daughter No. 2 who has run two London marathons and one New York marathon in under four hours on 20 Camel Lights a day even when she was training? I have no scientific proof to back this up but I'm convinced that certain people, Winston Churchill, Eubie and my mum, for instance, carry anti-smoking genes. One of these days when we're tired of genetically modifying carrots, people who want to smoke will be able to genetically modify themselves against all those smoking-related diseases my husband can reel off in alphabetical order the minute you light up.
It's the born-again syndrome, of course. He smoked a packet a day until he was 35 when by chance he ran into a guy in Chicago who gave him the one-to-one aversion treatment and then taught him how to do it. As a matter of fact I was one of his first clients and stopped just long enough for us to get married, soon after which I started again.
Listen, it's no big deal, though you'd think I was mainlining ketamin the way he glares and starts flapping his arms and throwing open windows the moment I reach for a my packet of extra-mild Silk Cut. I suspect he's secretly envious because I'm one of those irritatingly atypical smokers who can happily go without a drag for a month and then chain-smoke all evening when I'm playing cards.
If, in spite of his father and the advertising ban, No. 3 son does start smoking I shall not weep or threaten or have an attack of the vapours. I shall sit him down quietly and tell him that Sir Richard Doll, the eminent epidemiologist who first discovered the link between smoking and cancer, advised Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs that it's a waste of time trying to stop young people smoking. Too much peer group pressure. As long as they give up by the time they're 35 they'll be OK.
"Gosh, mum, is that really true?'' my son will say. Ask your father, I shall say, and blow a perfect smoke ring.
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