Thank You For Smoking

I didn’t smoke a cigarette until age 10. Before that, me and the local boys would tramp over the local hills in search of dead ferns to smoke. By high school, we’d graduated to the healthier option. Cadging together $3, we’d skulk outside the off-license and wait. After 12 stern rejections, a reliable character would, for buyer’s rights of one cigarette per 10, smuggle us a glossy packet of Lambert and Butler. Unknowingly, we were Ayn Randian capitalists—peddling each cigarette on the school’s black market for six times the store price. 

Since then, I’ve smoked with sinful enthusiasm. In 22 years, save bouts of profitless nerve-fraying repentance, I’ve happily and heavily chuffed a quarter of a million cigarettes from the lustrous gold-tipped Russian Blacks to the French New Wave Gitanes. I’m faintly aware that human mortality remains at a stubborn 100 percent and that my smoldering little love affair will end like the best of love affairs—in peril. 

Few share my sensual pursuit. By 2030, the British government will declare the country “smoke-free.” By smoke-free, they mean “nowhere near me.” Paying $18 billion a year in taxes, we smokers, for the pleasure of lighting up, feather the treasury with three times in taxes what we take out. Instead, they’ll follow a handful of councils that have made it awkward for smokers to exist outdoors. Recently, in its demented pursuit to be “the first” smoke-free county, Oxfordshire County Council announced a ban beginning in 2025 on smoking outside of bars, restaurants, and offices. Five other councils—Northumberland, Durham, North Tyneside, Newcastle, and the City of Manchester—have enacted similarly viceless measures.  

I’m old enough to remember the indoor smoking ban. Alas, dear reader, the pink-lunged puritans didn’t stop there. 

The Muesli mafia has a curious grasp of the English language. One of the Oxfordshire mullahs said, “It’s not about telling people not to smoke.” Like cigarettes, that kills me. No, it’s all about “empowerment.” These days, everyone and everything needs a dizzy dose of empowerment. Everyone’s on a journey and all are empowered. Though, mental health statistics suggest otherwise. Our culture, what’s left of it, is a perpetual Beyoncé track.

We should have seen this coming. For the socially interested, the last 16 months have succored the one-third of any society susceptible to authoritarianism. We’ve lost our minds. Ten percent of Britons want lockdown restrictions to last indefinitely. They’ve thoroughly enjoyed grassing on partygoers, mask-shaming pedestrians, and denouncing those with the temerity to desire a vacation outside of some spiky British beach town surrounded by sun-bubbled rah-rahs named Cheska. Those convinced of their compassion seldom surrender their passion to convince. 

Twenty to 35 times per day, I’m reminded of that compassion. Every time I open my once seductively golden tobacco pouch, a harrowing photograph of blackened lungs pillories my freedom to remain enslaved to an admittedly foolish yet fulsome habit. I know full well smoking is noisome to all but the diehards. And I’m fortunate to not yet have suffered the consequences that millions have suffered; consequences of which millions more have suffered in witnessing a loved one ebb away to what is a frivolous and deadly pursuit. There’s nothing romantic about lung cancer. 

Perhaps my smoking is a crutch, a pathetic grasping toward a recent past in which life was more carefree and real. In post-Yuppie Great Britain, everyone my age is “building their brand,” or documenting their “self-care,” or waffling “their truth” in some soulless microcosm of Californian narcissism. If the Financial Times had its way, we’d be chomping fake meat and assessing action-item lists in driverless cars en route to the Amazon workhouse. You’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy. 

As you can imagine, I’m not too keen to stay on these shores. This summer, I’m off to France. Not only is France more welcoming, one-third of the French still smoke. Derided in British media for their apparent laxity, the French still know to live now because one day you’ll die. I know where I’d rather be.

The irony of all this health stuff is that as smoking has declined, obesity has ballooned. Between 2003 and 2017, obesity deaths rose by nearly 30 percent. One-in-four deaths are now related to one’s weight. The fanatics of Action on Smoking and Health don’t mention that corpulence now kills more than the cancer stick.

I’m yet to see a warning label plastered on a multipack of custard doughnuts depicting that ever-growing species—the common British landwhale—sweaty of brow, wheezing across the street toward its feeding ground of Burger King, nor one beached at the bottom of a flight of fearsome steps, weeping into a bucket of KFC. The compassionistas keen to vaporize smokers delude themselves with the mantra of “healthy at any size.” That silly cant doesn’t cure diabetes, heart disease, or stroke. 

Perhaps then my smoking is not a pathetic crutch, but a noble endeavor. As I am ceaselessly reminded: smokers die younger. Consider that one-in-three girls and one-in-four boys born today will live to 100 and that by 2050, the old will for the first time in human history outnumber the young. Sentimentalists might think that a marvelous progression, another “first” to trumpet. But we misanthropes see demographic disaster and civilizational collapse. By shuffling off early, we smokers are doing the ingrates a small favor. You can live as long as you like, as long as you don’t like living. 

You won’t hear that from the puritans of Action on Smoking and Health. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken: they’re governed by the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. Perhaps they should change the name to Against Smoking and Happiness and leave me to wheeze in peace.

About Christopher Gage

Christopher Gage is a British political journalist and a founding member of the Gentlemen of the Swig. Subscribe to his Substack, "Oxford Sour."

Photo: Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

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