Like sex, tobacco is very bad for you

How to stop young people smoking – put a bloody great curtain in front of the fags!

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Well, having seen recently the effects that ageing can have, I have come to realise that either I am going to have to live very healthily indeed from now on, or very unhealthily. It’s either nothing but fruit, pulses and kale smoothies, or a diet consisting of bacon fat, methamphetamine and Capstan Full Strength.

So I’m looking at an online tobacconist’s, just seeing if you can still get Capstan Full Strength, when my eye is drawn to a red circle with an “18” in it, just as you would get on a DVD with loads of bad language and/or bosoms and/or violent mayhem in it. The text reads, in block capitals: “This site contains images of tobacco. If you are under 18 then please leave now.”

Life prepares one for many things, but I have to say that I didn’t see this one coming. I mention it to someone on social media and she says it’s obviously a joke, but: a) nothing else on this site bespeaks even a rudimentary sense of humour and b) you just can’t tell these days. I decide to use the scientific method and look at a few other online tobacco-providers to see what they do, and although not all of them give a damn whether you are 18 or not, there are quite a few who do, some of them even going so far as to make you tick a box saying, “I’m over 18, honest” – that fearsome Cerberus of a gatekeeper that has proved so remarkably effective in the war against young people looking at bosoms, or worse, on the net.

I have noticed in the past few months the heavy plastic curtains (or, in some cases, flimsy plastic curtains) going up in front of the tobacco section at newsagents and in supermarkets. I always wondered what the idea behind them is. Do the powers in the land now think that a smoker, realising she has run out of fags, will go to the local minimart, fail to see any packs of her favoured brand, or indeed any brand, behind the counter, and say to herself: “Well, they don’t sell cigarettes here any more,” and go home? Or, failing to see behind the curtain, simply forget what she came out for in the first place and buy a packet of Trebor mints instead, with a vague, nagging feeling that these weren’t part of the original plan? Hard for that to happen when many shops have curtains bearing the legend, usually in pretty large letters, “We sell cigarettes behind this daft curtain” – or words to that effect.

The idea, I suppose, is to protect the young. “Won’t someone please think of the children?” was one of the recurring jokes in The Simpsons, invariably wailed by some idiot when the town of Springfield was about to enter one of its periodic displays of mass insanity. Never mind that children can see people smoking in the street, because that’s pretty much the only place left to smoke, so now smoking is visible like never before; and if they live in a large conurbation, they can even see rows of people smoking enormous hookahs in front of shisha parlours, the sweetened smoke scenting the air around them, which is certainly something I never grew up with. (I brought a shisha pipe back with me from Tunisia, having picked up a fondness for the habit there, but I learned pretty quickly that assembling, lighting and then cleaning the thing is an enormous faff and best done by others.)

Still, people continue to smoke, even though it is very bad for you. So are lots of things. Sex is very bad for you, or it must be, that’s why you’re not allowed to watch it happening until you’re 18 unless you’re doing it yourself. (I remember, as a youth, marvelling that I could stare at my own erection with impunity for as long as I wanted, but an image of someone else’s was, under any circumstances, illegal and liable to swift and zealous prosecution.) The idea that “images of tobacco” are a significant factor in people picking up the habit is, however, debatable.

There comes a point when one has to take a stand. Like the Springfield idiot, this government, in a world howling with outrage, has decided to pick on an easy, stupid thing to fix rather than a big, complicated one. (The idea that what is concealed behind a curtain only increases in allure would seem not to occur to them.) I’d recently decided to give up smoking. Well, I’m not now. I want to blow a big fat plume of smoke in these idiots’ faces. And if the art department has drawn a cig in my mouth this week, as I asked, this magazine will have to have a warning on the front cover. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War