One of the more solitary small pleasures I enjoy throughout the week is settling down to a good read with the Weekend FT in a café serving half decent coffee. Apart from the cringingly ghastly “How to Spend it”, the magazine supplement written by FT hacks with leaden wit and obvious contempt for their readers – by definition themselves possessing no style of their own and in need of being told “where to get it”, the rest of the newspaper provides some first rate long form and investigative journalism covering life in general , beyond the financial. Since the FT content is behind a pay wall and I have no interest in the weekday newspaper itself, it’s not worth my stumping up for a subscription. Fortunately for me the weekend print edition is usually on sale at Periplus bookshops around Bali.
On one occasion, seated at a table on the deck of the Starbucks in Renon Plaza, engrossed in a good read trying to control the flyaway pages of my newspaper I was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. I was partly aware that a dapper Indonesian man in his early thirties had arrived and sat down at an adjoining table, put down his coffee, opened his lap top, and positioned his handphone together with some other device alongside. Preparing to be irked and ready to rustle the pages of my broadsheet ostentatiously enough to attract attention for a warm-up death glare, I realised that the smoke didn’t actually reek of tobacco, as I had automatically assumed it would.
As I was registering this, the man raised a small expensive-looking rectangular black and silver object to his mouth and took a toke. Upon exhale an astonishingly copious cloud of vapour billowed forth, was taken by the wind toward and past myself, on to envelop other tables nearby, only dissipating on the far side of the deck. Impressive in its way. What kind of a storm cloud, I wondered, would a party of half-a-dozen such tokers emit? What about the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms be like? Would they be able to see other?
It wasn’t that I was completely unaware. I knew smoking had evolved and that the tobacco barons had developed new ways to attract and addict a younger clientele in the delivery of nicotine, while extending their questionable business ethics into other less lethal areas of business. In fact, I had even read about just that very thing in a previous issue of the FT, to the effect that the big tobacco majors were now concentrating on e-cigarettes and vaping, sales of which now stood at some US$16 billion and expected to treble to over $40 billion in four years. The only clouds on that horizon being a growing international movement to regulate the sale of these products.
In this instance, I just adjusted my chair so I had my back to the man and instead of resuming my reading, forgot about the vapours and fell into a reverie upon life and tobacco over past decades.
One way or another, smoker or not, tobacco affected us all. Its aroma and its advertisement, an ever-present factor in our lives. The habit has been around a long time. King James 1st of England (1603-25) not only fulminated against the noxious weed but cut off the head of the man who brought it back from the Americas. It was the introduction of cigarettes, which really kicked tobacco industry into the big league, on a par with oil, coal and transportation. By the 1930s smoking cigarettes was the social norm. It was permitted and catered to almost everywhere. The whole world stank of it. We did, so did our clothes and our homes. We just didn’t realise it. In hindsight one has has to wonder how a non-smoker managed to get through life in such a tobacco-ridden environment. Think of the allure of a beautiful and elegant woman smoking a cigarette, a not uncommon and powerful image back then. As a red-blooded non-smoking man how in reality, if your dreams came true, would you be able to make love to that woman? And don’t let’s be gender specific here – it works everywhich way.
By 1950 the British Medical Association( BMA) sounded the death knell for tobacco’s glory days, announcing conclusive evidence to show that cigarettes caused lung cancer. To prove the point King George VI of England died of lung cancer in 1952 at the age of 56. Not long after his daughter made a point of revoking the Royal Seal of Approval carried by Benson & Hedges and other British brands. She had good cause to believe the BMA. Nonetheless there followed a vicious 50-year campaign of huge mendacity waged by Big Tobacco to deny the reality, that cigrette smoking was the second greatest killer in the world after road accidents.
In the days when I smoked it was only two or three cigarettes day, unless I was drinking. Then I chain-smoked. When they banned smoking inflight by the early 1980s I was happy. I could stop smoking for years at a time. Trouble was – easy to quit, easy to start. I never liked smoking in and around food so lighting-up after a meal was no big loss in restaurants. In fact I reserve a special place in hell for the affected swine who light a cigar when other people are eating. The more expensive the cigar, the more it stank. Since my late 40s I’ve smoked very little and not at all in the past decade.
Whatever the case, the whole paraphenalia in and around smoking affected us. When I first started smoking I went up-market, Benson & Hedges in their red and gold tin, Balkan Sobranie Black Russian or enticingly foreign like Gauloises and Gitanes. Then settling down to Senior Service or Players and a spell rolling my own in 60s. By the mid 70’s I had pretty much settled down to Benson & Hedges gold or Marlboro Light, which was when I finally graduated to tipped cigarettes. Like publishing, the British and American tobacco barons exercised dual dominion over the world when it came to international brands, so I never really got into American cigarettes, but somewhat familiar with the ‘jet-plane’ brands of the 50s and 60s (Rothmans, Stuyvesant, Pall Mall, etc.), until the advent of Marlboro Man that is. One phase I observed with interest and faint contempt was the early 70s fashion branding of cigarettes in huge packs by Cartier, Dunhill, Davidoff and the like, inevitably accompanied by a gold or silver bric lighter from Dupont or other purveyor of cadet luxe.
For most of us I suspect, looking back at the golden age of tobacco, now that the stench is gone, is a pleasant exercise in nostalgia. We grew up and matured alongside it all – the packaging, the accoutrements, the advertisements, the sponsorships – all designed to entice.
By the time I looked up the man with the laptop and his vape had gone. You know what? E-cigarettes etc. kill only a handfull of people a year, so on the scale of lethality I reckon folks can be left in peace to take a small toke of nicotine in the great outdoors, without the heavy hand of the law being invoked. That said, I do wonder a bit about the involuntary sharing airborne particles lung to lung.
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