“To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I’ve done it several times.” – Mark Twain.
I sit in my black leather armchair, blissfully ignorant of the intoxicating fumes I inhale. I draw in on the cigarette’s butt, and tobacco burns. A crunching sound follows – it is a melody so seductive to smokers. I exhale. A fog spreads and poisons the room. Wisps of the smoke trail up from the end of my roll-up and curl their way up to the ceiling – a metaphorical exorcism of the day’s woes – drifting into oblivion. Then comes nicotine’s consolation, a numbing euphoria that engulfs my limbs from head to toe. I know what I am doing is wrong, but I don’t care. Addiction has taken flight.
I received a flurry of touching messages from friends and colleagues concerned for my health before coronavirus choked the nation. Scientific America confirmed that “smoking or vaping may increase the risk of severe coronavirus infection”. Smoking triggers inflammation and subdues the body’s immune system. It also increases the likelihood of contracting pneumonia. People tell me, if there was ever a time to quit smoking, it is now.
But will it make a difference if I stop now? I am young; surely, I’m not at risk? If vapers and stoners are in such danger, where are all the front-page warnings? And what about Dr Kári Stefánsson, founder of biopharma company deCODE Genetics in Iceland, and his recent study that showed up to 50% of coronavirus cases exhibit no symptoms? Or the research that emerged from NYU which claims smoking may reduce the likelihood of being hospitalised with COVID-19?
In 1962, 80% of British men smoked; double that of women. Research now shows a drop to 17% for men and 13% for women. The 2006 Health Act and the Department of Health’s rigorous anti-smoking campaigns deftly banished incentive. Banned TV ads, high taxes, fear-mongering package warnings, cautionary lessons in biology classes, were among the government’s arsenal to discourage uptake and decrease usage. Something that was once fashionable morphed into a grotesque habit reserved for those who lacked willpower. Yet, an appeal of dissidence remained.
Before the word cigarette immediately caused the uninitiated to visualise blackened, tar-brimmed lungs, many pictured a stylish James Dean; the chiselled face of 1950s teen angst and social rebellion. Sean Connery’s James Bond was another iconic smoker who graced the screens – cigarette drooping out of his mouth after effortless seduction after effortless seduction. Not to mention Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Rosario Dawson in Sin City; each bringing an air of class, sexiness, and danger as they puffed away on screen. It helped me think of myself as the cool kid, lighting up behind the French department during lunch break. The cigarette was an icon for rebellion.
The iconic attractions of smoking stretched beyond Hollywood. Many academics took to the pipe or cigar; Carl Jung, Noam Chomsky, Robert Oppenheimer, even the Salisbury’s own Sir Roger Scruton. Christopher Hitchens stood out at the turn of the new millennia when anti-smoking sentiment reached its peak. The dissident thinker who so charismatically outwitted his stuffy, elitist opponents onstage that they could not help but smile after his quips and jabs, often pranced about fag in hand. He embodied the quality of resistance afforded to those by the suppression of smoking. As an intellectual, well aware of the dangers, he exuded a sense of individualism, which supplemented his polemics and image as a contrarian.
There were also immaterial attractions. Much like the Native Americans garbed in their breechclout and leather leggings, humming shamanistic prose as they sucked on their ceremonial pipes and communicated with other realms, smoking in its purest form is transcendental. There is something otherworldly about it. Several religions have taken to it over history. The Baal Shem Tov taught it as a religious devotion that could help bring forth the Messianic Era. Just as temples, shrines, and churches keep a few smoking incense candles going, it helps create that aura of mystery.
None of these attractions accounts for the financial burden. Thirty years ago, a 20-pack of king-sized cigarettes cost £1.40. In 2019, it was £11.90. Rishi Sunak’s recent tax hike brings it to an eye-watering £12.73. My annual cigarette consumption bill amounts to several hundred pounds a year, coupled with intermittent coughing fits and a permanent weakness to fit my activities around the addiction; not the other way around. You’d think that is enough to stamp the habit out for good, but no. Humans regularly commit self-destructive acts that defy reason; Jihad, suicide, entertaining socialism – smoking is no different.
At the time of writing, authorities attribute 5,373 deaths to COVID-19 in the UK. 96,000 people die of smoking in the UK per year, compared to 480,000 in the US and 8 million worldwide. Smoking fatalities far outweigh the present threat. Regardless, a respiratory viral outbreak still bears no weight on my motivation to quit.
Last week, I experienced symptoms; a continuous new cough, hot sensations, and shortness of breath. I would be lying if I said a possible admission to the ICU did not plague my mind. But this week my heath, fortunately, returned to me. Perhaps I should heed the warning. The rare breed of smokers in Britain today are not Sean Connery’s. Nor is nicotine’s satisfaction a price worth paying for a life confined to wheezing on the hospital floor in old age.
The highest proportion of male smokers is between 18 and 24 years old. When we are young, we can afford to revel in the vices of our choosing with no regard for our health. It is part of growing up; however, we learn certain habits are not sustainable in the long term. That point has come for me. Perhaps I can now truly call myself a conservative; to succumb to addiction is to accept a loss of control and thus victimhood. Everyone has the power to quit his or her vice. Addiction is not a disease. But then again, quitting has always been so easy.