When I was very young, everyone I knew, with perhaps three exceptions, was a smoker. My Mum smoked, as did my Dad, my Grandparents, almost all of my Uncles and Aunts, and all the family friends. Smoking was normal. In the street, on the bus or train, in shops, cinemas, theatres, everyone seemed to be smoking. The only place I had never seen anyone smoke was in a church. If you visited someone in hospital, they had an ashtray next to their bed. Cigarettes were sold everywhere; in pubs, shops, railway stations, cafes, restaurants, and even from vending machines in the street. If you are under 40 years of age, you would find it hard to believe how acceptable it was to smoke.
Furniture was even sold with built in ashtrays, in recesses in the arms. Cigarette boxes were coordinated with other ornaments, and every room would have a selection of ashtrays, of all shapes and sizes. These ashtrays were usually the most popular gift to bring someone from a holiday, covered in sea-shells, or bearing the name of the resort where you had spent your summer break. Novelty cigarette dispensers were also popular, at least with the working classes. My Grandmother was very proud of a plastic donkey that she had received. It carried a box on its back. When filled with cigarettes, the large ears could be pulled forward, the tail would raise, and a fresh cigarette would appear out of the donkey’s rear end! This fascinated me as a child, and I would happily play with it for hours.
Cigarettes, and cigars, as well as pipes, were common gifts for Christmas and birthdays, and they were always well-received. In the build up the the Festive Season, the tobacco companies would prepare special gift ranges. Cigarettes would be packaged in larger numbers, in 50’s or 100’s. They would be sold in special tins, or large boxes with nice designs. Cigars were considered the height of luxury, and were much too expensive for the average worker. So, the companies made sure everyone could afford to buy some, by adding smaller packs, of 2’s and 5’s, or selling single cigars, in stylish metal tubes. All of these would be passed around in the pub, or at family parties.
Offering cigarettes to guests was as natural as offering tea, food, or alcohol, and it was often the role of the children of the house to make this gesture, while the adults chatted and made small-talk. I recall an onyx cigarette box, with matching table lighter and ashtrays. In my mid teens, I would offer this around to callers at the family home, and light the cigarettes of those who took one. Pipes are almost unseen these days. Then, pipe smoking was common, and a good pipe was an expensive item, frequently given as a gift upon Retirement, or when reaching a birthday of a certain age.
There were few distinctions on smoking between the classes, except perhaps for the brand of cigarette, the cost of it, or how it was smoked. Richer people, celebrities, and a lot of women, would use a cigarette holder. This came from the days before filter tips, when the paper, or small bits of tobacco, would stick to the lips, and lipstick would smear the end of the cigarette. In my circles, using a holder was considered very upper class, or effeminate, depending on the person. Smoking was not discouraged amongst the young. Some men felt that boys should be smoking by the time they were 14, or at least have tried their first cigarette by then. It was seen as a rite of passage, along with your first glass of beer, and losing your virginity. Is it any wonder then, that by the age of 16, I was desperate to become a smoker?
There were two main reasons why I had not started before. Although cigarettes were affordable to all, by comparison with today’s prices, I didn’t really have a lot of money, as I had decided to stay on at school. More importantly, I was afraid that I would cough, or smoke in a funny way, fail to be an accomplished smoker, and let the side down. I resolved that during the coming summer holidays of July 1968, I would buy some cigarettes, and give it a try, teach myself to smoke when there was nobody around.
I had already decided which brand to try. Benson and hedges, in the gold packet that looked like an ingot. Luxury personified, and King Size, so marginally longer than most cigarettes. They had a filter too, so would not be as harsh as the still popular ‘Plain’ , or non-tipped brands. I bought 10 cigarettes, and a box of matches. There was no question that the shopkeeper would serve me, as there was no age restriction on the sale of anything. A small child going to buy sweets would often be given the extra money to bring home cigarettes for their parents.
This was a time when a child could buy fireworks, knives, or anything that they had the money to pay for. I went home, and lit my first cigarette. I decided to read the previous weekend’s copy of the ‘Sunday Times’ newspaper as I smoked it. This somehow seemed appropriate. I had been studying every adult I knew for the last ten years. I knew how to smoke, what to do, how to hold it, even when to flick off the ash. And there I was, no coughing or choking, no ‘going green’ and vomiting. I was pleasantly light headed, felt totally relaxed, and enjoyed the whole experience. I was now a smoker. I had chosen a path that would affect my future, cost me untold thousands of pounds, and ultimately be responsible for my demise. I couldn’t care less. I was finally like everyone else. I could pass my cigarettes around to friends, and freely accept those offered to me. I would no longer be the outsider, the teenager who didn’t smoke, the only male I knew, over the age of 15, who wasn’t part of the mainstream. I had arrived.
At first, I didn’t let on to my parents that I had started smoking. In fact, I did not smoke openly in front of them for some years. This may seem a contradiction, after all the reasons I gave to want to start smoking but it had dawned on me that it would be too expensive to be perceived as a smoker. I would have to keep up with my parent’s phenomenal smoking rate, accepting and offering cigarettes with the same frequency that they were used to. I just wouldn’t be able to afford it.
If this all seems strange to the reader in 2012, you may have to look into the archives, watch some old films, or newsreels, to get some understanding of how smoking was just a part of life back then. Watch any footage of The Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) from the 1930’s, through to the 1970’s. You will almost never see him without a cigarette in his hand, or hanging from his lips. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Princess Margaret was usually seen smoking, as were other members of the Royal Family. Churchill, with his cigar, Roosevelt with his cigarette holder, Stalin with his pipe or Russian cardboard cigarette. These men won the War, so we were told, and they were all, always, smoking.
Every person of importance, every Film Star, or leading actor and actress, Television presenters, popular entertainers, politicians, soldiers, airmen, sailors, even some sportsmen. They all smoked. In the case of Film Stars and actors, they also endorsed cigarettes, appearing in advertisements for different brands. Product placement was widespread, as cigarette packets were being shown in every film or television programme. Even in historical films, set in the time before smoking was so common, you would see someone smoking a clay pipe, or a cowboy rolling a cigarette from what looked like newspaper and dust. If they could have got away with it, they would have had ‘Ben Hur’ lighting up after the chariot race. In war films, everyone smoked. Cigarettes, and their availability would be part of the narrative.
Brands would also be mentioned. ‘Give me a Lucky’, a reference to the American brand ‘Lucky Strike’, was a common line in film scripts. German prisoners would ask for cigarettes, then declare with a huge grin, ‘American tobacco-good’. Red Indians and U.S. Cavalry would smoke peace-pipes, with the wise old chiefs thinking for a while, then, upon exhaling a cloud of smoke, they would also say ‘ your tobacco-good’. Wounded soldiers, in films or in actual newsreels filmed at the front, would be given a cigarette before a bandage. Anyone due to be executed would always request a ‘last cigarette’; the most important thing that they could think of to do before death, was to enjoy that last smoke.
The advertising employed by the big tobacco companies had to be seen to be believed. Anyone who was not around at that time would be amazed at the quality and concentration of it. With the advent of commercial television, tobacco advertising had found its true home. Mini feature films, many years ahead of the pop video, extolled not only the benefits of a particular brand, but also the coolness and desirability of smoking. There had always been the hoardings and the newspapers but these were nothing compared to the opportunities that the film and TV industry opened up to the advertisers.
Like many of my generation, I can still recall the jingles, and the catchphrases, the individual scenes, and the association with brand colour, that dominated the world of advertising before the ban. Brands had a market that they aspired to, as much as consumers had a brand that they identified with. Rothmans and Peter Stuyvesant had airline associations. Jets arriving, pilots checking watches, lighting cigarettes for attractive hostesses in bars. Marlboro had a rugged image. The Marlboro Man, a modern cowboy, riding into the scorching sun of south western America. Some brands played on their name. Guards used cigarettes as cartoon Guardsmen, complete with bearskin hats. Senior Service traded on the association with the Royal Navy, using animated cigarettes playing the part of a crew on a sailing ship.
Some were less direct. The famous cinema advertising campaign for Benson and Hedges showed no cigarettes at all. It featured lizards, swimming pools, abstract images, with just a tantalising glance of a gold packet, in there somewhere. The importance of all this money spent on advertising cannot be stressed enough. Like a Pavlovian dog, I now recognise red and white as Marlboro, black and gold as John Player Special, green and white as Consulate, gold as Benson and Hedges, blue and white as Rothmans. I don’t ever need to see the packet, or catch sight of a cigarette. I am brand aware, until my dying day. Try to imagine the ‘Thriller ‘ video, with Michael Jackson smoking, and recommending a brand. Or Duran Duran all lighting up on the deck of the sailing ship, with the brand name emblazoned on the sail, and you may have some idea what I am on about.
None of the above is offered as an excuse, or an apology for being a smoker . I am well aware that many thousands of others, subjected to the same imagery, bombarded with the same advertising, or watching the same films, chose not to smoke. In many cases, it did not even occur to them to try. I had always wanted to smoke, and everything else was just confirming to me that it was a good idea.
At the time, most non-smokers that I met seemed pretty dull. All the people I wanted to be like, or to look like, or to be with, were smokers. Cliff Richard didn’t smoke but Jimi Hendrix did. Most pop groups would smoke live on stage, tucking the lit cigarette into the strings of their guitar as they played a solo. The biggest star entertainers of the day, like Frank Sinatra, smoked on stage, on TV, and in interviews. All the hard men and lovers in films smoked, and the non-smokers didn’t get the girl, or kill the bad guy. Look at the Spaghetti Westerns. Clint Eastwood as the man with no name, chewing a cheroot, unstoppable, impossible to kill.
When I later joined the Ambulance Service in London, smoking had started to become less popular. Many of my colleagues had never smoked, and for the first time, I found myself in a minority in the workplace. However, I needn’t have worried, as I soon discovered that most of the Doctors and Nurses I met were heavy smokers, so I would have plenty of company for what became known here as ‘fag breaks’. I then recall hearing something about the stopping of sport sponsorship by the big tobacco companies. Then, there was talk of smoking being banned on all public transport, and airlines. Restaurants and cinemas started to have ‘smoking sections’, and companies began to make smokers use ‘designated areas’.
Civil Litigation had crossed the Atlantic, and every big company and organisation was getting worried. Could someone sue a place where I once worked, because they had allowed me to sit smoking, next to someone who later developed breathing difficulties? If someone saw an advertisement for tobacco at a football match, decided to smoke for 40 years, then died of lung cancer, who could the family sue? Suddenly, smoking was the new Leprosy. Places to smoke started to disappear fast, those havens falling like dominoes. Transport and planes, gone. Restaurants, gone. Public Buildings and staff rest areas, gone.
Then came the final indignity for the poor smoker. The British (and Irish) pub, traditional home of the smoker since tobacco arrived from the New World, gone. This was probably one step too far. The pubs have gone too. Thousands closing all over the Country, few new ones opening. The ones that still manage to keep going can be spotted by the fact that most of their customers are standing outside, smoking. The pavements of Central London, on any given evening, are blocked by the crowds smoking outside bars. Fun people smoke. Lots of drinkers like to smoke, and the vacancies left behind by the expulsion of the smokers, have not been filled by the non-smokers who complained in the first place. Pubs have pretty much become restaurants that serve drinks now, and one day soon they will be consigned to history, along with ashtrays on the back of bus seats.
A life spent smoking for 44 years. I tried all brands, then settled on the American style of Marlboro/Lucky Strike after all. With the exception of my wife, and my step-children, I hardly know anyone who smokes anymore. Strangely, few of those now gone died of smoking related problems, though my poor Mum suffered many years of breathing problems as a result of her lifetime of smoking. The taxation on cigarettes is making them harder and harder to afford. The cost of two of us smoking far exceeds our weekly grocery bill. As we have moved to a different house, we have decided to smoke in just one room. Otherwise, nobody will ever visit us again.
Former smokers amongst our friends seem to find it the most difficult. As for visiting anyone else’s home, be prepared to smoke outside, away from the doors, in any weather. If they get their way, the authorities will soon ban smoking in all Public Areas, even outside. A further ban in private cars will follow, and then your own home, probably for insurance reasons, you will be told.
If the Government really wanted people not to smoke, they could just ban the sale of cigarettes completely, destroy all the stock, and forbid the importation of tobacco. They won’t do that though, they have too many friends in the big Tobacco companies, and they need the untold millions in tax revenue. Truth is, smoking is not on a national decline. There are still around 15 million smokers, about 1 in 4 of the population. This is a smaller figure than in the 1970’s but still significant . It is more common in working class areas, and is increasing in popularity with young women. This is all probably a bad thing. I don’t pretend that smoking is not detrimental to your health, and I have to accept the very real possibility that I will die of something awful that is smoking related.
However, the Government has to realise that banning something in places, not allowing the product to be seen, and not permitting it to be advertised, it a sure way of making it seem more attractive to the young. In my day, I was proof that advertising and familiarity caused me to smoke. In years to come, it may well be that the opposite is true, and the youngster of today starts smoking because it is unseen, frowned on by their elders and betters, and it has become cooler than ever.
Got to go now, I really need a cigarette after all that.