Up in smoke

The smoking of tobacco had already had a long history before Sir Walter Raleigh reputedly introduced the habit to the court of Elizabeth I in the late 1500s. Archaeological evidence in fact suggests that tobacco use dates back to at least 10,000BC.

The modern age of smoking might be said to have begun in 1880 when cigarettes were first mass-produced in the USA and when, as a result of the fall in price, consumption soared, not only among men but also, increasingly, among women.

Elizabeth’s successor, James I, was a famous opponent of tobacco smoking1 and the habit has always been disparaged by many as an anti-social and immoral activity but the modern drive against smoking perhaps starts in 1950 when Richard Doll and A. Bradford Hill published their Smoking and Carcinoma of the Lung. Since then, through argument and counter-argument, accusation and refutation, smoking has come to be accepted as a major cause of ill health and premature death by all but a stubborn minority of self-deluded smokers.

Once a virtually universal practice, smoking is today a controlled minority pastime seen as anti-social because injurious to smokers and by-standers alike and a burden on the health services. In England, smoking was banned in the workplace and in “enclosed and substantially enclosed”2 public places from July 1st 2007, but such a ban had already been enacted in Scotland in March 2006 and in Ireland in March 2004.

Tigger and I went on holiday in Ireland in 2006 and rejoiced in the fact that we could go into pubs, cafes and restaurants and not be troubled by tobacco smoke. We eagerly anticipated the start of the ban in England and were relieved when it finally came into force.

One of the interesting discoveries on our recent courier run to Bilbao occurred when we entered a bar and found ourselves in a scene reminiscent of an English pub in the bad old days: people were sitting at tables or at the bar, happily puffing away at cigarettes and the air was blue with tobacco smoke. Spain, it turned out, has only a partial smoking ban though a new, tougher law comes into effect in 2011.

It need hardly be said that the smoking ban has changed English culture, both for the better and, in some instances, for the worse. Generally, the improvement in our daily lives has been huge. When people impute economic disadvantages to it, pointing to the mass closures of pubs, I think they are wrong and that smoking has nothing to do with this (some pubs became non-smoking before the deadline and did not see wholesale defection of customers). It is more likely that other social changes (including the availability of cheap booze in supermarkets), have led to the decline of the traditional pub.

All in all, the ban has been a positive experience, at least for us non-smokers. Three years later, however, memories of the moment when the ban started have begun to fade and these days we tend to take it for granted, instead finding it a shock to visit countries where people still smoke pubs and cafes.

There is little doubt that the ban has helped change the public’s attitude to smoking. Whereas we were once hardly aware of people smoking beside us in the pub or restaurant, these days the least whiff of tobacco smoke is instantly noticed and deplored. From being a complacent majority, smokers are today an embattled group, forced to leave their seats and go outside to satisfy their craving.

One of the ways in which culture has been changed for the worse is that there is much more smoking in the streets and other open places such as parks. Walking in a crowded London street these days, it is hard indeed to dodge the pungent stink of cigarettes, pipes and cigars. As you enter or leave public places such as restaurants or railway stations, you run the gauntlet of the sad gaggle of smokers who gather around the doorway. At bus stops, you have to manoeuvre to avoid the inevitable “faggers”, polluting your air supply.

Bus shelters are another refuge for smokers despite the fact that there are “No Smoking” signs prominently displayed. In fact, smokers often cut these out and remove them as if they think we will be fooled into believing smoking is allowed within.

On Sunday, leaving our laundry churning away in the launderette, we went to the local Costa coffee bar and took coffee in the little back yard. It wasn’t long before a smoker joined us. We said nothing as this was permissible under the rules but we couldn’t help noticing that when he finished his cigarette and departed, he dropped the butt on the ground, leaving it for someone else to deal with, despite the fact that there was an ashtray on his table.

There is nothing unusual in this: observe smokers in the streets and you will see that most discard their cigarette ends on the ground, often without even bothering to extinguish them. Similarly, vehicle drivers use the open window of their van or car as their ashtray. Or consider the smoker waiting at the bus stop who, when the bus comes, drops the still burning cigarette on the ground, first taking a deep puff of smoke which he then slowly exhales aboard the bus, naively thinking no one will notice or, perhaps, with selfish disregard.

Things could be worse, though, and the smoking band has succeeded far better than most of us dared to hope. When smoking was banned on London Underground trains in July 1984, pessimists averred that it wouldn’t work. On the contrary, the ban was a success, and was followed by a complete ban on subsurface parts of the Underground after the King’s Cross fire in 1987, thought to have been caused by a smoker dropping a lighted match on one of the wooden escalators. Perhaps this increased our awareness of the risks of smoking and prepared us for the wider ban that was to follow.

As we sniffed and coughed over our food in a smoky Bilbao cafe, we reflected how far Britain had come from the days when a doctor could assure his patients that smoking was harmless and even a little beneficial because of the antiseptic effect of the smoke. Perhaps, though, this is not quite the end of the trail. If people cannot be persuaded to give up smoking altogether, can we not ban it entirely from the public space and designate it an activity to be conducted in private?


1His A Counterblaste to Smoking was published in 1604.

2For a definition of enclosed and substantially enclosed in this context, see Smokefree.

Copyright © 2010 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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10 Responses to Up in smoke

  1. WOL says:

    There is no question that nicotine is an addictive drug, — twice as addictive as heroin, according to what I’ve read. The ban on smoking has been a boon for those “quitting smoking” gums. Here we have “smokeless tobacco” — chewing tobacco which is about five times as disgusting as smoking it, since they inevitiably have a cup to spit in or else spit on the street. A native American friend of mine (a lifelong nonsmoker) is fond of saying, “Nicotine, sweet nicotine, the red man’s revenge. . . ” — with more than a little touch of irony.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Addiction is the reason why so many people carry on smoking despite the indignity of having to stand outside the office or the restaurant to do so. Any normal person would give up at that point or at least wait until he gets home but smokers can’t wait for their fix. I know smokers who have tried to give it up – perhaps several times – but have consistently failed. Pride then forces them to claim they smoke because they enjoy it…

      Tobacco chewing does exist here but it is fairly rare, I think. Another way of taking tobacco is snuff, finely ground tobacco sniffed up the nose. It is interesting that already in the Victorian era, doctors were beginning to suspect that snuff was the cause of certain illnesses affecting the nasal cavity.

      I don’t think your Native American friend has any cause for complacency: the “white man” (and most other ethnic groups) have been using tobacco only since the 16th century but the inhabitants of America were using it for thousands of years before that. Who knows how many of them died of cancer and other smoking-related diseases? They were taking “revenge” on themselves long before they did so on us.

      • WOL says:

        Ah, but the native Americans only used tobacco for ritualistic purposes as part of their ceremonies and therefore smoked very infrequently — smoking the “peace pipe” was one such ritual.

        • SilverTiger says:

          Even if it is true that there was no recreational use of tobacco among Native Americans (and the history of pre-Conquest America is hard to elucidate), surveys suggest that today the percentage of Native Americans using cigarettes and other forms of tobacco is higher than that in any other ethnic group. See, for example, here.

          So, if they have used tobacco to take revenge on the white man, it seems that Native Americans are using it to taken an even greater revenge on themselves.

  2. AEJ says:

    Ah, so much to say. I’ve never smoked in my life — nor has anyone in my family — but I do experience addiction (food/chocolate) and although it may not (or may, depending on the study referenced) be as strong as a nicotine addiction, I can understand the difficulty in giving it up. I wish food addicts had as much help, though, as nicotine addicts.

    When I was a kid my favorite thing to do was to go bowling. We had “duck-pin” bowling (smaller pins) on the East coast and it was the best thing to do (besides roller skating) on a Saturday night. The problem was, however, that bowling alleys were full to the ceiling with dense smoke. It was disgusting. Every time I’d go bowling I’d leave with a feeling that I had just wiped a year from my lifespan. It took multiple washings for my clothes to smell clean again, too. All these years later, bowling alleys are now smoke-free.

    They have “designated smoking areas” for the smokers who work in our building. At first it was an empty parking space just outside the front door, which no one used. Then they gave them a picnic bench with canopy cover over by the garbage dumpster, which a few people use. Most people just stand right outside the front door, which they’ve been told explicitly not to do. They do it anyway, with pride in their faces as they do it.

    All restaurants are smoke-free, which is such a blessing. They used to have smoking areas within the restaurants but let’s be real, the smoke went throughout the whole place, not just the smoking area. I’m so glad it’s now banned pretty much everywhere.

    My husband’s father smoked since he was 13. He ended up needing (and did finally receive) a heart transplant at one point, and still didn’t stop smoking. The heart came from a young man who had killed himself. It seemed like there should have been an obligation to “do right by” the young man, and to give the heart every opportunity to provide its function the way it was intended. Later his father also needed a lung transplant, but was denied due to the continued smoking. He eventually passed away, way too young.

    Smoking kills. But, so do many other addictions. Smoking has a direct effect on those around the smoker while other addictions may only have indirect effects. Either way, addictions are a problem. Mostly I feel so sad when I see a very young person smoking. I just see a sad future ahead of them.

    • SilverTiger says:

      The fact that our clothes would stink of stale tobacco afterwards was one reason why we were disliked going to pubs and similar places. Even now, we encounter that smell from time to time when a heavy smoker gets on the bus or train and sits nearby. They presumably do not realize the stench they give off.

      We encounter the same problem of smokers gathering at the door of the restaurant or cafe so that the smoke (and stink) penetrates inside. Now that pubs and coffee bars try to provide “facilities” for smokers, this often spoils the venue for others when that facility is the garden or terrace which then, being populated by smokers, becomes unusable by anyone else.

      People can be addicted to many things. When I worked in the bookshop, one young male colleague was addicted to chocolate and ate many chocolate bars each day. He said he wasn’t addicted and so another colleague challenged him to spend a day without chocolate. After about half an hour, the addict gave in and ate another chocolate bar.

  3. AEJ says:

    How interesting for a male to show such an addiction. I don’t drink coffee or drink sodas, so I think the chocolate for me provides caffeine. I am trying to find other, less fattening, energy sources. Most people here in the States drink about 12.4 cups of coffee a day.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I don’t know which male or which addiction you are referring to but maybe I missed something.

      A lot of fuss is made about the British and their tea (though the tea habit has in recent decades been spreading widely in other countries especially in Europe) and Americans and their coffee. However, what is almost never discussed is the quality of what is generally drunk under these names.

      The only coffee I have ever drunk in the US was a Starbuck’s at Chicago airport so I cannot judge. However, if Canadian coffee is anything to go by, then it hardly deserves the name of coffee at all. This view is supported by the figure you give of 12.4 cups: anyone who drank 12.4 cups of real coffee every day would suffer from the effects. I can only deduce that Starbuck’s coffee-flavoured hot water is representative of the genre and that American coffee is therefore anodyne and harmless.

      I did smoke for a while but then gave up by literally stopping one day so I never really understand why people find it so difficult to stop. (I gave up alcohol in the same manner.) Maybe some personalities are more prone to addiction than others. I think smoking is a double addiction in that it has chemical and also social dependencies. Even when people beat the chemical dependency, they often find it hard not to smoke while others around them do so or at certain moments of the day, such as after meals. For this reason, I think patches etc. offer only a partial solution. In addition, the ex-smoker need to retrain his reflexes and patterns of habit.

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    The present Spanish law is chaotic and is not enforced. Bars of less than 100 m2 can choose to be smoking or non-smoking, and almost all are smoking. Above that they have to have separate areas (in theory).

    A new law has been agreed subject to final amendments. It will ban smoking in all enclosed public places, and everywhere in schools and hospitals including access points (i.e.doorways). Hotels can have up to 30% smoking rooms, always the same ones and with separate ventilation systems. Prisons, old people’s homes and psychiatric hospitals can have smoking areas for inmates but not for staff.

    This will come into effect on 2 January. They didn’t want to start with it being widely ignored on a big public holiday like New Year’s Day.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Let’s hope that the new law is a success in Spain.

      The UK experience was that having separate smoking and non-smoking areas in pubs simply didn’t work. Smoke would come over from the smoking area into the non-smoking and if people chose to smoke in or near non-smoking areas, bar staff were understandably reluctant to do anything about it. (We have a similar problem today with people smoking in the doorways of bars and cafes.)

      Most of the owners of businesses we spoke to approved of the ban – it made their lives easier as they could cite the law and could justify calling the police if someone disobeyed because otherwise they could face a fine. A lot of businesses closed briefly before the ban came into force to give their premises a good clean!

      Too often governments try to be fair to everyone and end up making complex laws that are difficult to understand and impossible to enforce. A clear ban is best because all then know where they stand.

      I hope we get another courier run to Spain next year so that we can see how well the ban is working!

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