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The little talked-about pleasures of smoking
Essay : smoking, gift economy, time, regulation
Saturday, August 02, 2003 18:20 GMT

Prospects for smokers are definitely getting worse.

In the UK, Alan Milburn has promised to put diagrams of tar-infested lungs and choking hearts on cigarette packets, a spiteful gesture which will almost certainly adversely affect the pleasures of smoking. He’s one of a number of health ministers who are currently conspiring in Brussels to stalk poor, defenceless tobacco lovers all across the continent and turn them into paranoid, hollow-eyed outcasts. Mayor Bloomberg has banned smoking in public places in New York City, and raised the cost of smokes so high that many formerly valiant fumeurs are having to admit defeat – or (ignoble fate!) slink away to the hazy ghettos of expat Manhattanite smokers in New Jersey. When the history of the clan is written, these will be the Dark Ages.

Let’s face it: opposing smoking makes good political sense. To take a stand against smoking is to take a stand against Death – for a third of the people dying in the UK today would of course not die if there were no cigarettes – and that can only be a popular political platform. If your health service happens to be falling apart at the seams it is also useful to be able to share the blame with an army of anti-social addicts who asphyxiate themselves and everyone around them into a range of disgusting and very expensive diseases – and to get them to help you pay for the mess. Moreover, this morality play is unusual in our complex society for having very few ambiguities – large and irredeemably evil corporations are pitted against innocent children – and at a time when people are so cynical of the moral credentials of public figures, a politician would be a fool to turn down the part of dragon slayer.

It is possibly as a result of such political exigencies that public discussion about smoking is so narrow. It is, we all know, an indisputable evil of modern society: a conspiracy of the cigarette giants, who trick people into their pharmacological trap with large-scale propaganda; and an addiction of insufficiently informed people, who smoke and spend themselves into early graves at great cost to society. Such an evil can invite only elimination, and if this is a complete description of its working then it is clear what has to be done: close down the propaganda machine and wake the people up from the deceptions into which they have been thrown by telling them the true nature of their habit. When the right cocktail of such measures is hit upon it should be possible to enlighten every sector of the population, and the epidemic should disappear in a puff of nicotine-free smoke, leaving behind a clean society.

Actually, it hasn’t happened like that. The number of smokers in the UK has remained more or less constant for the last decade, hovering just under 30%. Since this period has seen a significant rise in the prominence of health warnings, particularly in schools and colleges, we might suspect that there is a large core of people who will not be deterred from smoking by the knowledge that their hearts might seize up or their lungs turn into a useless tumorous mess. There is of course a simple explanation for this: any attempt to discredit or repress a sensual phenomenon in society gives that phenomenon still greater libidinal charge, thereby creating its clientele. Attempts to eliminate smoking by telling people about its dangers are thus inherently flawed, for while many will thereby be deterred from their habit, others will be reinforced in it. Much as government might like it to be, the whole truth of human life is not a search for cleanliness, health and rationality.

But perhaps it’s also worth taking the whole phenomenon more seriously (as well as light-heartedly!) and refusing to see smokers merely as brainless victims, smoking because they are ravaged by addiction and do not know any better. Maybe smokerdom is a lifestyle choice that has a completely separate logic from the familiar one touted by health ministers, a logic that is active and self-conscious rather than passive and coerced, a logic that inhabits a different space from that of health warnings and “Pop stars say no!” campaigns.

Smoking presents at least two kinds of counterpoint to modern society that guarantee, I think, that it will always find adherents. This is the terrain into which the discussion never seems to go.

The first has to do with the gift economy of the smoker community. Though the rising prices of cigarettes might still put an end to this, they are in general subject to a completely different set of rules to pretty much any other commodity. We can easily imagine a banker approaching a lorry driver in a railway station for a cigarette, imagine the driver obliging with no expectation of anything in return, imagine them talking together over the microritual, before stubbing out and going their separate ways. But it is difficult to think of anything else that one of those two people could ask the other for without inviting suspicion (“Would you mind terribly if I had a few bites of your sandwich…?”). The community of smokers is one in which cigarettes and lights are freely, even warmly, given (“Take one for the road”), and in which perfect strangers are willing to share a moment of bodily experience and a few words.

This is actually rather strange. Our society might be a better one if such bonhomie were not wasted on a practice so unnecessary to life as smoking, and extended to more essential things such as money and food and lodging, but in such areas most of us are strictly observant of the principle of self-sufficiency. The image of the traveller who arrives late at night in a town and avails himself of the rules of hospitality to procure dinner and a bed at some stranger’s expense is only, to us, a fairytale – or perhaps an exotic travel story from some endearingly backward foreign place. As far as such basics are concerned, other people’s needs put us under no obligation – or, at least, these obligations have been successfully subcontracted to the state through taxation. The smoking community, however, is quick to take care of the needs of anybody who is caught without, and cigarettes circulate between people freely and across social lines. Insofar as it is pleasurable to relate to other human beings in the simplicity of being human, independently of any other qualification, insofar as it is meaningful to congregate around rituals of sensuality, it is easy to see why smokers might wish to retain their links to this social network, since all other such networks seem to have been destroyed.

Of course, one obvious reason why it might have been possible to sustain such rules among the smoking community is that a cigarette is a minimal currency that can be given with almost no sacrifice of time or money, and without any breach to the ramparts of personal space that are so important to modern people. In every sense, it costs little to give a cigarette, so the gift economy of smoking can sit fairly comfortably alongside the much more closed-handed system of the rest of life. But there is another reason why smoking can remain separate from such a system, and this is the second point I want to make: the possibility that it offers of holding onto a different kind of time.

When we discount all the millions of cigarettes that are smoked over a laptop, all the ones smoked to cope with the pressure of tomorrow’s deadline, we are still left with millions more that are smoked in a sidestep from the rush of time. The timeline of contemporary lives is often unforgiving, and many people smoke in order to create moments of reflection and stasis: when somebody takes a break from reading to reflect on the knowledge that has entered them, and to smoke a cigarette, which allows them a physical sense of “taking in”; when a smoker comes out of an airport and tries to ascertain her feelings in this new place with the aid of a ritual that focuses her on inner sensations… Smoking, like various kinds of meditation, concentrates the mind on breathing and thus on a personal rhythm of time, separate from the hurry of the world.

There are other ways of doing this, you might say. But what is interesting is that cigarettes have come to enjoy a certain institutional approval for this “grounding” role that they play in people’s lives: for in these days of smoke-free offices has the “cigarette break” not become a staple of corporate culture? It is difficult to imagine a group of people leaving the office several times a day saying that they wanted to share a packet of M&Ms, or do five minutes’ yoga. But cigarettes seem to be a legitimate vehicle for people to retreat from the intensity of workplace time and gather themselves up for a moment, to speak to colleagues as fellow human beings rather than as bosses or subordinates – so much so that often these little outings are accompanied by non-smokers who do not themselves have any such legitimate way of creating mindspace outside the office.

Of course, once again, cigarettes can play this role partly because they represent such a minimal interruption to everything else – infrequent five-minute breaks that make people happier and possibly more productive, and that can exist more or less invisibly within the otherwise ordered and onward logic of the workplace. But this is not to say that the oases of personal time that they represent are insignificant within the economy of individuals’ days.

None of this is supposed to be a defence of cigarette smoking. It’s just an illustration of how crude the logic of the Health Minister is in comparison to the phenomenon it is supposed to manage. This is one of the serious problems we face today: the ubiquity of a language of management which fails to capture most of the human dimensions of things, and relates only obliquely to the way in which they are actually lived. At the present moment in time it’s not difficult to see what extremes such a tendency can take us to.