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13 March 2000

Sartre, Bogart and the last puff of freedom

Smoking once meant glamour and romance; now, the smoker is victim and polluter

By James Harkin

Imagine, as a friend of mine did recently, the following morbid and highly improbable scenario. You’re a passenger on an aircraft that loses control on landing. Your plane bounces head-over-heels down the runway, disintegrates and then bursts into flames, leaving you behind on the tarmac: the sole survivor of a horrific crash. Many of us would be paralysed by shock, overcome with guilt or left muttering an instinctive hymn of gratitude to a long- forgotten deity. Not my friend. As he saw it, the trauma would make it the perfect moment for a puff on a cigarette. Lying on the tarmac and still strapped in his seat, he would reach for his top pocket, pull out his cigarette packet and ingest the most sublime lungful of nicotine known to man.

The recommendations of the hardened smoker are nothing if not inventive. His cigarettes are a medicine for every ailment, an accessory without which no experience is complete. They function as a regulator of anxiety, a stimulus to productivity and an insurance policy against boredom in all of its manifestations. They represent a pure burst of concentrated pleasure, impossible to replace and (whisper it) cheap at the price. The experienced puffer finds that everything about his addiction takes on magical qualities: the ceremony of lighting up, the accoutrements of his habit, the odour of burning tar. For the determined smoker, good food is the opportunity for an after-dinner smoke and good conversation is mood-music that never drowns out his need for a puff – even passionate sex is only the means to an end: the fumble for a post-coital cigarette.

Cigarettes have long served as a symbol of exchange and a fluid for mediating social interaction. When I worked as a manager of a homeless persons hostel for Southwark Council in south London in the early 1990s, I found myself buying an extra packet every morning: dishing out cigarettes was simply the easiest way to win the respect of homeless residents.

George Orwell, during the lean years that inspired him to write Down and Out in Paris and London, recalled that he would go to parties with only one cigarette in his pack, find a smoker and offer it to them. His recipients, invited to peer into an almost empty pack, would inevitably refuse to take his last cigarette and offer out one of their own, instead. Thus, according to Orwell, could he puff his way through the party and still have a cigarette left for bedtime.

Cigarettes are the only currency available to the prison inmate, the final pleasure accorded to the condemned man. Where governments have called upon the support of their citizenry in time of crisis or war, smoking has turned up in propaganda as a badge of courage under adversity and cigarettes as a morale-boosting ingredient in the rations of soldiers.

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To smoke has ever been considered patriotic: in 1920, at the end of a bitter world war, American puritans who advocated the prohibition of tobacco were indicted on the charge of treason.

The cigarette – and the myriad rituals and gestures that accompany smoking – has been an important vehicle for the transmission of meaning and characterisation in films. With the arrival of Humphrey Bogart, the smoker found his most eloquent cinematic ambassador. In Casablanca, cigarettes are ubiquitous and Bogart’s smoking reinforces his calm, steely exterior. The on-screen affair between Bogart and Lauren Bacall developed with the cigarette as a romantic prop and a sexual fetish: from the moment when Bogart lights Bacall’s cigarette in To Have or Have Not, we know this is going to be the beginning of something special.

In Tony Harrison’s modern interpretation of the Prometheus legend, the heat and light that the smoker conjures into being serves as a token of the human impulse to invention and ingenuity. Or smoking can simply be a tribute to the joy of being alive. Asked by a Newsweek reporter what was the most important thing in his life, the existential smoker Jean-Paul Sartre grumbled: “I don’t know. Everything. Living. Smoking.”

Whatever the colourful recommendations of the smoker, his habit has fallen on hard times. Tobacco advertising is now either banned or so tightly regulated as to have become cryptic – which seems a shame, given that the vivid imaginations of smokers and their enthusiasm for the product might make for some compelling viewing. The smoker has found himself airbrushed out of contemporary cinema: James Bond, portrayed in Ian Fleming’s books and in the early Sean Connery films as a keen smoker, has long since given up.

Michael Mann’s new thriller, The Insider, which tells the story of a whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, and his battles with the tobacco manufacturer Brown & Williamson, opened in Britain on 10 March. The film, which has already created a controversy in the US, has the smoker as the dupe of a sinister conspiracy by tobacco companies intent on covering up the link between tobacco and lung cancer.

Canadian men who still rely on their cigarettes to facilitate romantic introductions will soon have reason to change tack: under the latest proposals by the Canadian government, their packs will be covered with the image of a drooping cigarette, a symbol of the impotence which smoking might cause.

Somewhere in the past 20 years our love affair with the smoker has turned sour. True, those years have also seen exponential advances in our understanding of the harmful effects of smoking. No longer can the smoker claim to be unaware of the potential consequences of his addiction: it is well settled that this habit kills 120, 000 smokers a year in Britain and is the root cause behind 30 per cent of all cancer deaths.

But smokers also know that hostility to their habit goes beyond the available scientific evidence. Remember the busybody who coughed theatrically when you lit up? Most of us took no notice. But now he’s back, and he’s brought all his friends. Together, they want to save us from ourselves.

The latest and most ambitious initiative in the Stop Smoking campaign, cheerfully entitled “Don’t give up giving up”, was launched by Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, in December of last year. Its purpose can have nothing to do with the dissemination of information about the harmful consequences of smoking: those facts are, after all, already in the public domain. Rather, in a multi-media fanfare organised in conjunction with Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) and the BBC, the campaign aims to “motivate people to change their behaviour”. Top tips in the campaign literature will be manna from heaven for the jaded smoker: they include asking friends and family to sponsor you to give up, and the peculiar injunction: “Don’t just sit there thinking about cigarettes – make yourself useful. Anyway, it is hard to smoke when you’re wearing a pair of rubber gloves.”

Today the smoker stands awkwardly on both sides of the stage in the pantomime of political debate. He is both an insidious perpetrator of air pollution and a helpless victim of powerful multinational tobacco firms.

New Labour MPs have no qualms about telling us how to live, and this government has made the ban on smoking a cornerstone of its policy agenda. Unable to raise the income taxation necessary to make improvements in public services, new Labour has embraced with relish an entirely new form of taxation, one whose sole purpose is no longer to provide public goods, but to prevail against public bads.

The smoker has long been saddled with a punitive tax on his behaviour: now, in return for his tax money, he is presented with a range of anti-smoking initiatives to persuade him to kick the habit.

The issues raised by the war on smoking are nuanced. My preference for a cigarette forms part of a class of desires that, when taken together, play an important and highly contested role in our understanding of freedom. In an essay published 20 years ago, the Hegelian philosopher Charles Taylor took issue with a central foundation of postwar liberal political theory: the idea that freedom should consist of no more than the absence of external constraints on individual desire.

Taylor’s critique of that concept was disarmingly simple. Once the liberal acknowledges that each of us spends our time bound up in a struggle between contradictory desires, and that some of those desires are experienced as qualitatively more noble than others, there emerges the possibility that the uses to which we put our freedom might be self-defeating or plain wrong-headed. Any conception of freedom founded on the maximisation of our brute or immediate desires is, as a consequence, found to be one-sided and impoverished.

There is an important truth in Taylor’s argument. Smoking – whatever its merits – is a filthy habit and most of us want to give up. I take pleasure in my addiction to nicotine while, at the same time, aspiring to a healthier, smoke-free lifestyle.

A philosophy that only registered my immediate desire for a cigarette would look insipid, since few of us are such slaves to desire that we can be said to be unaware of the consequences of our own actions. Standing behind the allure of those preferences is a conscious and responsible human being who weighs the value of alternative courses of action in accordance with a wholly personal set of circumstances and inclinations. But when this truth is employed to justify a government campaign to second-guess our desires and persuade us of the need for more responsible consumer choices, it sends precisely the opposite message: it relieves the individual of responsibility for his actions and makes responsibility for those actions the stuff of good government.

Scolded into submission and forced to reflect on the ugly possibilities presented by his habit, the smoker might yet become a emblem of something more lasting than his packet of fags. Richard Klein, author of Cigarettes are Sublime – a brilliant ode to the pleasures of smoking – eventually falls back on the following argument: “The freedom to smoke ought to be understood as a significant token of the class of freedoms, and when it is threatened one should look instantly for what other controls are being tightened, for what other checks on freedoms are being administered. The attitude of a society toward the freedom to smoke is a test of the way it understands the rights of people at large, for at any time, a quarter to a half of all the people in the world are puffing away at cigarettes”.

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