I admit that news of Rishi Sunak’s proposed smoking ban, which would emerge slowly by making it illegal for a child of 14 today to ever buy a cigarette, elicited a not wholly rational initial feeling from me. Think something along the lines of that famous clip of Charlton Heston absurdly defending the right to gun ownership at a National Rifle Association conference by waving a rifle above his head and saying “From my cold, dead hands!” – which inspires the obvious response that guns will indeed be prised from many cold, dead hands. So too with cigarettes. I am in no doubt about the often agonising, untimely deaths caused by smoking; practically nobody on earth can be. In an abstract sense there is nothing I would wish more for a healthy society than for smoking to be erased. We do not, though, exist in abstraction and there is an illogical part of me that feels sadness at the prospect of this loss, even for a generation who wouldn’t know they’re missing anything.
I do not say this to suggest I am about to go renegade and start handing smokes out like sweeties to ignorant, innocent children, but to indicate the vast web of conflicting emotion that any regular smoker finds themselves contending with. Yes, I would like to quit smoking, but I would also very much not like to quit smoking, as indicated by the fact I’ve never done so. Yes, I think it’s disgusting and expensive and it will be enraging to my loved ones if I die of a smoking-related disease, as some part of me is resigned to doing. Yes, I am very much afraid of my parents – both once serious smokers who have dwindled to occasional ones – dying from these diseases. My resistance to these facts isn’t based in any sort of mythologising about the aesthetic of the cigarette, though no doubt I absorbed some of that earlier in my brain’s more porous era. I don’t think I look cool smoking. I can see it makes me less good-looking, less able to run, generally less vital, when vitality and energy are, to me, what makes a person attractive.
My attachment is deeper, much more emotional and incoherent. Smoking has always meant freedom to me, and I don’t mean that in a libertarian way, I mean it on the most intimate individual level. It started as a claim for private space as a teenager, feeling overwhelmed by the confluence of a chaotic, mentally ill brain and the pressures of exams, heartbreak and family. My first cigarette – a menthol, naturally – was given to me by a boy I was in love with, outside a bar – but immediately I saw them for what they were and moved them from the social space to the private. I would spend all day in school trying not to break down in a toilet cubicle, consoling myself with the promise of my single 4pm smoke. And after school I would reverently take my cigarette to the bit of land next to the nuns’ graveyard and sit under a tree and think of nothing else as I breathed it in.
As I grew up cigarettes continued to be a portal to privacy and freedom, a way I could escape an argument with a bad boyfriend, or the crappy jobs I was barely able to keep. I notice even now, with no truly bad boyfriends or jobs allowed in my life any more, that they function as part of a little theatre of self-sufficiency when it feels like things are spiralling out of my control. It’s not just the satisfaction of nicotine intake because I am an addict, though it’s that too. It’s all the assembled parts, the filters and the papers and the tobacco and the lighter, it’s having everything I need without having to ask anyone else. This is why I can’t imagine being one of those casual trifling smokers trying to cadge one at weddings – having to ask would ruin half the meaning for me.
My complex feelings about smoking are deepened by the fact I am one of those people who maintain a fairly hardline conviction that mentally sound people should have as much bodily autonomy as possible without it harming other people. I’m aware this sadly puts me in a venn diagram with the likes of Nigel Farage, but it has always felt not only true but important to acknowledge that a person’s body belongs to themselves, and that we are fallible creatures who will sometimes harm ourselves in the process of that ownership.
Preventable illnesses and deaths will always be a part of that bargain. This would be the case even if the government managed to ban smoking and drinking. A recent study published in the journal BMJ Public Health suggests premature deaths will rise 6.5 per cent this year due to the cost-of-living crisis. Many deaths could be classified as preventable if you want to get right down to it, between poor diet, lack of exercise and bodies that are battered by years of labour.
Sunak’s plan, ostensibly reasonable in its wish to erase smoking, rankles because a just society would create conditions for those who choose to live in a healthy and moderate way to do so with ease. In this scenario, one in which a citizen has every opportunity to treat their bodies well, we could rest assured that those choosing not to – by taking drugs or smoking or drinking to excess – were taking an informed, adult decision, however unfortunate the consequences.
This is not the case in Sunak’s Britain. Surveys show declining mental and physical health among adults, and worsening tooth decay, anxiety and stunted growth in vulnerable children who are unable to eat enough nutritious meals as the cost-of-living crisis worsens. Sharon White, the chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association, said last year: “I’m not overdramatising at all when I say we’ve got starving, hungry, sad, worried children committing crimes so their families can eat.” Banning harmful substances may be justified, but there is something galling about doing it at a time when it is not even possible for everyone in this country to access the most basic and necessary materials to survive.