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Cool cigarettes

I have never smoked a single cigarette. No teenage rebelliousness behind the bike sheds at school, no furtive trips to the corner shop to cadge ciggies off kindly store owners.


Steve Latham


It’s not that I thought I was better than my peers at school. No, I was afraid. This was a zone of transgression, of the forbidden. And I was a ‘good kid’.

Nevertheless, it has not escaped my attention, then or since, that it is always the ‘cool kids’ who smoke.

Cigarettes, especially roll-ups, are the quintessential sign of ‘cool’; reinforced by the power of celebrity, via film stars, rock guitarists, and fashion models.

The boys with long floppy hair, leather jackets, faded jeans, looking tough. The girls: long-long-hair, long legs, long sultry looks, and looking super-sexy.

What’s not to like? I wanted to join them, but lacked the courage. Their supercilious superiority kept me away from their stylish in-crowd.

But values are strange. When I was depressed at university, someone, helpfully, advised me to buy packets of cigarettes, to pass around the seminar room to make friends.

I recognised this was a bit desperate: offering cigarettes around, when I didn’t smoke, just to get friends. But yes, this was in the days when you could smoke anywhere.

In one seminar, I remember one switched-on, cool (obviously), feminist lecturer debating with us about when people could smoke in the classroom.

This was because, despite her own nicotine addiction, she recognised that smokers should not discriminate against us non-smokers.

It didn’t stop entirely, they still smoked at permitted intervals. We were far from today’s smoking bans, but the backlash was brewing.

I remember then, sitting on the top floor of the double-decker buses. Smokers were relegated to there, and the whole deck was filled with the blue fug of the smoke.

I hated sitting next to a smoker. The same was true in the cinema. You couldn’t control who sat next to you, even if you chose carefully where you deposited yourself at the outset.

You went home afterwards, your clothes full of the stench, the acrid reek of tobacco. But home, I discovered later, was also tainted.

When friends from university visited me, they pointed out the yellow-stained wall-paper, and the white patches underneath the pictures mounted on the walls. I hadn’t realised.

My dad smoked. Not cigarettes. But a pipe and cigars. He’d persuaded himself, or been persuaded by the advertising industry, that these were safer than cigarettes.

Nevertheless, when his doctor warned my father he faced the likelihood of mouth cancer, he gave up immediately.

This hasn’t stopped him developing COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), the direct result of his younger smoking days, which is increasingly affecting his breathing.

My own reluctance about smoking, however, wasn’t just about fear, or the health risks. I never really understood the attraction.

Why would I want to take some shredded leaves, wrapped in paper, set them on fire, put them in my mouth, and breathe in the smoke.


But why?

(Photos: Pixabay)

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