Thursday, 1 September 2011


I very much doubt that I will be believed if I say that I have never smoked.

But it's true. Even though I grew up in an era when most people did. Even when I was in my last years at school, and almost the entire sixth form were smoking their heads off, I still did not join in. By then it was stubborn general defiance as much as anything else: I simply wasn't going to conform, not to the school system, which I loathed, and certainly not to peer pressure of any kind. I was regarded as a bit weird, but I didn't lose respect.

Nor did I smoke when going for promotion at work in the 1970s. It really was an era of ridiculously hard lunchtime drinking, when lunches lasted three hours, and when any man who dodged out of it was dismissed as a 'wanker'. Chain smoking in foggy pubs was as much the royal road to the boss's approval as knocking back pints until you gagged.

Well, I acquired a certain prowess at drinking (and I flinch at what it could have done to my health), but managed to avoid lunching off a packet of Marlboro or Gitanes. Despite challenging the norm, I still got two promotions.

I disliked cigarette smoke from the start. I had no objection to cigar smoke - that was aromatic, and even today reminds me of Christmas. Nor did I mind the smoke from pipe tobacco - that was usually interesting, and pipes (and the ritual of lighting them, and keeping them going) had a certain fascination. And I associated pipes with reliable, friendly men in comfortable tweed jackets. But cigarette smoke stank; it was choking and smelly and just Not Nice. So even as a child I took an outsider's attitude to it. And I'm convinced that not smoking saved me from the world of drugs. Yes, even more incredibly, I never tried those either. Miss Goody Two-Shoes. (Hold on - I don't need to apologise!)

Now I'd better make it quite clear that I'm not going to be high-and-mighty and superior about what was, after all, a negative childhood reaction that I sustained into adulthood. If you smoked a bit in the past, I'm not judging you, even if it was more than just pure tobacco. And if you still do, then again, I'm not judging you.

As always, I insist on taking my own line, but I'm perfectly tolerant of what anyone else wants to do. Tolerant; but not necessarily without concerns. When my ex went back to smoking after a couple of years of marriage (she had reasons that she felt were good ones - intense work pressure being one of them) my heart sank. Not because I'd failed to make a convert - I won't foist my beliefs and attitudes on anybody - but because she had given smoking up for love, and clearly love wasn't now so strong. But equally, I fretted over the fresh danger to her long-term health. It seemed like voluntarily embracing a slow death. (I hasten to add that when I last heard, she was alive and well)

Dad and my Uncle W--- both gave up smoking in a pact around 1960, when I was eight. Up till then, they smoked as much as any ordinary person at the time. I think Mum had been nagging at Dad to give up. But perhaps W---'s wife, my Auntie P--- (the aunt who was 90 the other day) took a slightly more relaxed view. I was thrilled when Dad gave up smoking, glad that my Dad didn't smell nasty any more, but then (isn't this silly?) immediately missed the colourful cigarette packets. In his time, Dad had tried Woodbines (of course), Senior Service, and several other brands I can't name now, although I recall that he was smoking Gold Leaf in that red and white packet with gold foil inside when he stopped.

You see, I liked to play with the foil inside discarded cigarette packets, and cut out the designs, and try to make things with the matches. I even 'collected' match boxes for a while. Dad always bought the England's Glory brand, which had interesting things written on the back of the matchbox. All that ended.

Now where is this leading? Or rather, what provoked this post?

It was the news report today that Philip Morris, the US cigarette manufacturer, was applying legal pressure under the Freedom of Information Act on the staff of a UK university. They were researching, on behalf of Cancer Research UK, a big UK charity, why young people begin smoking. This was research funded therefore by donations and assisted by students and others who had disclosed their personal experiences to the researchers in confidence. The scientific integrity of the research was supposed to be impeccable, and ongoing government policy in this area was being informed by what the university was finding out. The results were being published as they became available. They touched on such things as what kids found attractive about the image of smoking and what might be persuasive about packet design. Philip Morris wanted the raw data. They were maintaining that they hadn't understood clearly what the published results had been saying. They denied that they needed it for marketing purposes.

Here's an ad of theirs from the 1950s:

And let's have some balance. Here's another old ad for cigarillos:

Mmmm. He knows that cigarillos attract red-lipped women with pointed breasts. They can't resist.

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