Fag end of fashion

Smoking in films once signified rebellion, coolness and sex appeal. Now it is shorthand for "loser".

You can say what you like, London is next - for a smoking ban, I mean. But when the time comes, who will the resolute smokers get to front their campaign, maybe lead them in a protest march and a prayer of sadness upon their defeat? Ideally it would be someone like Kate Moss. She's extremely pretty, and she likes a ciggie as much as (if not substantially more than) the next person. In the event, though, it won't be her. Forest, the pressure group that likes to sound environmental but is really just engaged in making the environment more smoky, wanted to crown her Smoker of the Year but she refused. This is the first clue that the habit is no longer the mighty oak on the cultural landscape that it once was. Think about it - if, 30 years ago, someone had asked Marianne Faithfull whether or not she would front a campaign to make people smoke more, she would have said "But darling, of course". Once upon a time, bright young things loved this drug. And they still love it, but they don't want to tell everyone about it.

The second clue is, if anything, more telling. When the Dublin ban came into force, what fugalman did they get to blow the horn for this time-honoured hobby? Shane Mac-bleeding-Gowan. One sick joke of full-body nicotine stain. Suddenly this is not a drug that matches your handbag. If you were 12, this is not what you'd want to do when you grew up.

I blame cinema, mostly, for this cataclysmic change. When celluloid and fags first embarked on their epic journey together, cigarettes signified all kinds of things. Sometimes they signified that you were cool (Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story); other times they implied that you were a red-hot she-cat (Rita Hayworth in Gilda). They were called upon to denote age, wisdom, rough and toughness, weary nonchalance (Humphrey Bogart), and simultaneously - though not usually in the same film - to bestow youthful, almost adolescent, innocence, naivety and elfin charm (Audrey Hepburn). In old movies, in other words, everyone with a personality smokes. Not smoking in a 1940s film is like being black in a 1990s film: it means you're evil, or you're not very important and you'll probably die halfway through.

I'd say this was true until the 1980s, when health kicks, California and definitive proof of lung cancer combined to give us Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. You could no longer smoke and be demure, as in the olden days. Now smoking meant naughtiness and, crucially, dirtiness. Don't forget, it's only seconds before Stone does her fabled leg-crossing stunt that she delivers the unforgettable line "What you gonna do, arrest me for smoking?". From that point on, smoking was on a par with wearing no knickers and only one step away from murdering people with pins. And it meant pretty much the same for male protagonists - just substitute commitment issues for wearing no pants. This, incidentally, was the cinematic trope that I grew up with - indeed, that started me smoking. I thought I was joining the ranks of bisexual murderesses, when in fact I was joining a bunch of self-hating, Silk-Cut-smoking, moaning Bridget Joneses.

Anyway, I thought that was the way it was going to stay: in the rubric of cinema, good girls would go to pilates and bad girls would go to 7-Eleven, and we could all - whichever side of the fence we wound up on - feel pleased with ourselves. Not so. Softly, softly, Hollywood has changed its tune. The smokers are no longer the rebels (though this might not be because rebels no longer smoke, but rather because, after a reign dating back to Prince James Dean, rebels no longer feature very much in mainstream cinema). The smokers are now the feckless, the hapless, the drizzly, dizzy young men and women who are coming undone, pinging like pinballs from one greyish crisis to another. In a comic context, this is Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary or Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie in Sex and the City (although she gave up as she got herself together); shading towards the tragic, you have Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Somewhere in the middle is Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, too flaky even to put her trousers on (you know, in the 1980s it was all fur coat and no knickers; now the knickers are huge but no one can be arsed to put their outdoor clothes on).

In other words, smoking is now shorthand for being a loser - you might be an art-house loser, but you're still a loser. Don't get me wrong, the actors taking these roles still smoke. Kate Winslet is an inveterate rollie roller; Gwyneth Paltrow liked her Marlboro Lights before she was with child; Scarlett Johansson, Anna Friel and, hell, loads of other starbursts all like a puff. But that's different. They smoke the way ballet dancers eat loo roll - in order not to eat. The characters they play don't need to do that, being naturally slim.

Mind you, the cultural barometer of film is much faster and more adroit than that of other art forms. Theatre, thanks mainly to its wilful performance of plays written in some cases as long ago as 1950, is beset by old-school smoking, smoking that suggests sex appeal, passion and intelligence. This is a particular problem in Dublin now, with the illegality and all, as so many plays have a smoker in them, particularly student staples such as The Odd Couple, Look Back in Anger and The Glass Menagerie. I wonder whether this could be the final inducement that makes young people smoke. All those who are too unpopular at school to be given spliffs or invited behind the bike sheds wind up playing that Walter Matthau guy when they get to university, and then it hits them. You can guarantee, however, that once today's plays become classics, today's standards will prevail - smokers will be premium wastrels, not cool and rebellious at all.

Which leaves visual art, specifically the Young British Artists, or the Artists Who Were Young Before Those Younger Ones Came Along. Tracey Emin has a loyal and, I think, over-prominent fascination with fags; Sarah Lucas's Christ You Know It Ain't Easy features Jesus made of Marlboro Lights (I'm not even going to try and unravel that, because I don't know enough about Christ); Gary Hume, Damien Hirst . . . all those guys have - what shall we call it? - a relationship with cigarettes that goes beyond simple addiction and ascends to art. My personal view is that they think they're so cool that they simply lack the self-awareness to realise how much less cool they are than almost everyone else, anywhere, ever. Mind, I just gave up. I'm in a terrible, terrible mood.

Zoe Williams is a columnist on the Guardian