The sexual magnetism of cigarettes

Illustration: Flo McQuibban

I remember it well. Late autumn in 2010, Friday lunchtime just before double French, tucked behind the tennis courts and nauseous with nerves that some roaming teacher would chance upon us. I was told by a fellow student that I had to deeply inhale so as to avoid mouth cancer, and fumbled at first with the lighter, unable to produce a flame.

For the next three and half years, right up until one evening at the close of my first year at St Andrews, it became increasingly rare to see me at a party or a pub without a pack of cigarettes or a pouch of tobacco near to my hand. In that time, I heard all the usual arguments for not smoking and all the typical accusations that tried to explain to me why I bothered to do it at all.

In the end, I guess that even my more concerned friends stopped trying and just accepted that I was not going to heed a word of their caution, and eventually I decided to pack it in anyway and can now barely fathom the idea of lighting up to my previously habitual extent. Back then, I ignored those who warned me that smoking was bad for my health or opined that I just did it to ‘look cool’ out of sheer, stubborn bloody-mindedness. Now that I am no longer personally invested in the debate, I have only just recently been able to take a step back and realised how intellectually dishonest the majority of attacks on smoking are.

Yes, you did indeed read that correctly. One of the ex-smokers, a class of proselytiser which traditionally has been second in its ardency only to the born-again Evangelicals, has come to the conclusion that smoking is generally unassailable, that most criticisms levied against it do not stand up to scrutiny in present intellectual conditions. My reasoning is based on the fact that if you consider attitudes towards smoking alongside attitudes towards comparable activities, then there is a glaringly obvious and ultimately illogical discrepancy between our collective approaches.

Take the set of arguments that include ‘it’s a waste of money’ or ‘you only smoke because you think it looks cool’, which essentially boil down to the assertion that there is no actual necessity to smoke, and, as an addition, that is a self-absorbed and superficial pursuit. Now consider spending £90 on a shirt from Hugo Boss, which more than likely is indistinguishable to the average passer-by from a shirt available for a tenth of the price from  M&S. Humans are by nature irrational consumers, and make economic decisions that appear questionable or silly, one of the reasons being because of aesthetic choice or, as it is pejoratively rendered, ‘wanting to looking cool’.

To be fair, doing something because you like how it looks is a perfectly good reason for doing something, be that wearing a functionally unremarkable shirt with a little man playing polo on it or stuffing your lungs full of tar. All but the most robotically austere live whimsical lives to some degree, curiously emotional creatures that we are.

This same universal appreciation of the irrationality of human kind also lays waste to the idea that because smoking is categorically, patently, incontrovertibly and undeniably terrible for your health necessitates quitting. Have you ever seen what a can of Coke does to you in a mere sixty minutes? Or what a liver looks like after forty years of downing Tennents? Do you have any idea of the kind of mayhem a McDonalds wreaks on the artery? I can just about guarantee that unless you literally do nothing except go to Yoga classes and scoff quinoa then you are regularly and frequently doing something awful for your body. Not to be too pecuniary about a matter of ethics, but at least smoking is taxed so exorbitantly that the costs of the NHS treatment for any related diseases is covered to a greater extent. This is not even a case of smokers needing to be informed as to how bad their habit is for their health: anyone who has been in the outside world for five seconds knows it and if you have the temerity to raise a cigarette to your mouth than it’s certain that someone will make a snide, supercilious comment about ‘death sticks’.

A third challenge that collapses just as easily when given the time of day is the classic ‘It’s harmful for undeserving people around you’. It verges of being unimpeachably valid until you consider that legal restrictions on where you can smoke have been enacted in recognition of that fact and that the same people flying the flag for universal social responsibility will, without a second thought, quickly go and fly halfway around the world, spreading greenhouse gases wherever they go, or ratify the horrible exploitation of the developing world by buying clothes invariably stitched together in some ghastly slum of a Far Eastern sweatshop. This argument amounts to a tremendous display of cognitive dissonance and undiluted self-regard wrapped up cynically as ‘social conscience’.

Hence, the sole argument that I find satisfactory in getting someone to stop smoking (even if just as a one-off) is ‘I don’t like it’. It’s not presented as some morally pretentious appeal to higher causes or hypocritical pontification about self-improvement.

It’s plain, simple and honest. As the smoker, the ball is then in your court to decide how much you value your companion’s individual comfort – something which you can be nigh on certain they value to the highest degree also – in comparison with how much you like your cigarettes. It’s the only argument which compelled me to bin my tobacco that fateful April day.

We, in our post-Enlightenment fever, will happily preach day and night about the absolute sovereignty of the individual within the limits of the law and, in our post-Romanticist stupor, will wax lyrical about the wonder of a human mind unfettered from laws of logic and shackles of reason.

We will place the overall concern of both ourselves far into the future and our fellow human beings faraway on foreign shores or to the back of our heads if it means that get to do what we want there and now. By some curious trick of collective ‘reasoning’, smoking bucks the trend, and with intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy as soon as we see a cigarette dangling between a friend’s lips we assume we have every license to criticise in whatever way we see fit.

No one’s saying that you should smoke. Yet we all ought to think twice as long and twice as deeply before we launch into a diatribe against any of those who have decided to.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.