On smoking

Now smoking was a different kettle of fish. When I started smoking back in 1977, I had to force myself to keep going for several days with my pack of Embassy, despite feeling sick and dizzy. I got through all 20 before I even enjoyed one drag. Amazing how self-image drives sacrifice in a teenager!
Actually, I started when I was five or six, because my mother smoked untipped Senior Service and I was unnaturally interested in how she made the smoke come out of her mouth and nose in swirling whisps, and how she pinched her tongue after the first drag to pull stray bits of tobacco off it.
One day she offered me a puff, and thinking that meant blowing, I didn’t demur. It seemed fun to hopd a cigarette and to blow into it.
But once she clarified that you suck not blow, I realized how disgusting and choking it was, and didn’t try again for fifteen years (although I do recall being arrested at the age of ten for smoking on the street in Cambridge).
The commitment I then made to getting through the first packet as a student paid dividends for 35 years – only they were dividends on tobacco company shares, not on my own. I persevered because it was cool, or at least I thought it was, and because about 90% of my fellow students smoked. Like most smokers, I wish I’d never started. There was the cost, which over the period I smoked amounted to over €60,000 at today’s prices and based on my average consumption of ten a day for 35 years. There was the smell, the environmental damage, the distain of half of a divided adult population, and of course the ill health. There’s no point writing about the downsides of smoking, and for smokers, no point in describing the benefits of it – you all know them. For the non-smoker, it’s hard to capture the pleasure involved in the first surge of nicotine through the body in the morning, or the pensive moments of taking out and lighting up a fag. In the end, the interesting thing is how, when and why to give up in middle age. It generally comes down to health, but it would be lying to pretend that self-image doesn’t play almost as large a part in the giving up as the taking up.
Yes, despite the cravings, the pleasure and the shear usefulness of the habit, those health issues weighed heavily. Now any smoker will tell themselves that they are fine with their shortness of breath, the bronchitic tendencies, their lack of taste and smell, their dry corneas, and their lack of sex drive. Come on! Let’s be realistic. Who would admit to that and be fine about it unless they were single. More likely, smokers won’t admit to suffering with any of these ailments, but they probably notice them. In the end, if they’ve given up and stayed with giving up, they’ll also admit to themselves how much better they feel about all these ailments.
For me, giving up was an on-off affair for several years, because stopping was easy, so re-starting was also easy. In the end, it seems that a slight and then greater tipping of the scales in favour of staying off them took place – the health issues were most evident, and the cost savings, but also, in one’s fifties, in a country where the smoking ban made it an outcast activity, the social pressure was increasing. And now, I can’t think of many people my age in my social circle who are regular smokers. I don’t miss it, even the pleasure of the habit. I gained some weight after giving up, which I didn’t lose again, and for a time I couldn’t watch someone lighting up my brand, Marlboro Lights, without a sense of regret, but that passed too. Sure it’s tempting to become a moralistic ex-smoker, and an evening in a room with smokers certainly smells much worse than it used to, but being comfortable with the lack of something is another lifestage thing which characterizes middle-age.

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