How I Started Smoking

A sentence in the Swedish article I was quoting from yesterday came back to mind:

Smoking always starts as a social experiment, but the less people see smokers the less popular it will become.

The antismoker who wrote this seemed to think that she knew a lot about smokers. So much so that she could confidently declare that smoking always starts as a social experiment. It was perhaps Simone Vargas Löfstedt’s First Law of Smoking. Smokers see other people smoking, and they join in doing it. Maybe drinkers see other people drinking, and they join in doing it too. Pool players see other people playing pool, and so they start playing too. Perhaps people only ever start doing anything because they see other people doing it, and they mimic them.

Was that the way I started smoking? Was I sitting in a cafe or bar somewhere with some friends, one or two of whom were smoking, and one of them offered me a cigarette? Or had I just watched Casablanca, and seen Humphrey Bogart smoking, and wanted to be like him?

In fact, I started smoking alone. One day, as a first year university student, I bought a packet of 10 Woodbines. They were the cheapest and smallest cigarettes on the market. It was all very, very deliberate. And after I’d bought them, I left the packet unopened on the table in my student room in the hall of residence where I was living. And eventually, after a week or two, I opened the packet, and took out one the cigarettes, and lit it, and smoked it very slowly and very deliberately. And about a week later I took out another one, and smoked that too. It took me a couple of months to get through the packet. And while I quite liked them, they also made my throat feel dry.

This wasn’t the first time I’d smoked cigarettes. I’d smoked them at school – behind the proverbial bicycle shed -, but back then I was principally interested in breaking school rules. I also had my jacket buttons undone, and my hands in my pockets, because those were against school rules. The Woodbines in the hall of residence weren’t breaking any rules. We students could smoke if we wanted to. We could also drink. And some of us did, and some of us didn’t.

I smoked my first packet of cigarettes on my own. And quite likely the second packet in the same way. I didn’t smoke in company.

I did everything very deliberately back then. A year or two earlier I’d got myself very drunk, very deliberately, at a party where I was too shy to talk to anyone, and spent the entire evening by the drinks table, sampling beer and wine and whisky, and testing how drunk I was getting by walking along the lines of the tiled floor on which the drinks table stood. That night I learned the hard way how horrible getting really, drunk could be. And never forgot the lesson. And have never ever been quite as drunk as I got that night.

I also used to steel myself to walk up to the prettiest girl in the room, and introduce myself, and stammer out a few words before the usual glazed look of boredom spread over her face, and she made an excuse to leave.

Why did I start smoking? I started smoking because I’d met the antismoking Dr W the year before, and heard him shouting at the top of his voice against the filthy habit, and realised that there was nothing rational about his hatred of smoking. And I’d realised that the entire war on smoking that was gathering momentum back then (mid-1960s) was an irrational campaign. It purported to be rational and scientific, but that was just a mask concealing the irrationality beneath. Dr W didn’t hate smoking because science had shown that smoking caused lung cancer, but because smoking was a filthy habit. And since he didn’t drink either, I supposed that he probably thought that drinking was another filthy habit. There was something badly wrong with Dr W. He seemed to be quite incapable of enjoying doing anything. Although since he’d fathered seven children, I supposed that he must have enjoyed doing at least that.

I started smoking because I’d met an antismoker. And I didn’t want to become like him. I wanted to be like my convivial, smoking, drinking father. For my father enjoyed smoking and drinking. He was at his best with a gin and tonic in one hand, and a cigarette in the other, roaring with laughter at a bar with his friends, of whom he had many.

So mine was a very carefully considered moral choice: Don’t do that – Do this. I’d been thinking about Dr W for a year or more after meeting him, and I’d decided that I didn’t want to be like him. But more deeply than that I’d concluded that, most likely, the entire war on smoking was being waged by people like Dr W. And I had a duty to stand up for smokers. In fact, I had a duty to become one. Starting smoking was, for me, like volunteering to join the army.

And behind every antismoker I meet, I always see the ghost of Dr W. He has been, for my entire life, the perfect exemplar of the antismoker. And so when by chance I met, about 10 years later, the (not-yet Sir?) antismoking Richard Peto and stood talking to him in an empty London pub, knowing that he was involved in antismoking in some capacity or other, I felt an almost physical force of repulsion acting between us, such that as we talked we moved further and further apart, ending up speaking to each other 30 or more feet apart. And it was not because he was an uncongenial man: he was, after all, standing in side a pub drinking a pint of beer (something Dr W would never have done), and he was perfectly capable of polite conversation: it was because I could see in the shadows behind him, and looming over him, the spectre of Dr W.

I’d only met him because we shared a mutual friend. And prior to our visit to the pub, we had been talking around the kitchen table in her London flat. And on that table she kept an ashtray, although she didn’t smoke. It was to be many years before I learned that she was another antismoker.

The antismokers multiplied slowly. Dr W was the first I ever met. The next one I met happened to also be an angry Welsh Nationalist (and the first of those I ever met too). Antismoking seemed to be a progressive disease that overtook people slowly, like Multiple Sclerosis. It seemed to attack people late in life. Women who had been smoking and drinking and partying in their 20s quite often became antismokers in later life. My own mother was like that, although she was never as virulent as Dr W. She was just puzzled why I smoked. Perhaps she’d been puzzled all her life. She’d only ever smoked to “join in”. She’d never enjoyed it.

I learned that, later in his life, Dr W had become very depressed. He apparently felt he had wasted his life. His wife even took him on a sailing holiday in France to try to cheer him up. I don’t know whether it did, but I somehow doubt it. As I saw it, Dr W had been depressed for his entire life. He had always been a miserable man. Perhaps it was only late in his life that he himself realised how miserable he was.

Unlike Simone Vargas Löfstedt with her deep understanding of smokers, I have no understanding of antismokers. I don’t know why they hate smoking. In fact, I don’t think there’s any reason for it. Their reasoning is always some sort of justification for a pre-existing prejudice. All I know is that if they don’t like smoking, they very often don’t like drinking either, and quite often end up not liking chocolate, meat, fat, salt, and sugar as well. It seems that they don’t like anything. It’s just that smoking was the first thing for which they announced their distaste. And once they’d got that off their chest, they had a long list of other things they didn’t like. And in fact, the list was endless.

Perhaps this is how the antismoking disease progresses. One person starts complaining about something, and that encourages other people to start complaining. And soon more or less everybody is complaining about more or less everything. In the USA, there are now even football players complaining about the US National Anthem. And included among the many complaints brought by Eunice Neeley against Stanton Glantz in her lawsuit was his habit of “staring at her body”. Whatever next? But since Stanton Glantz has built an entire career on complaining about smoking, is it any surprise that one of his students (in fact several students, by all accounts) should start complaining about him. After all, he’s been teaching people to complain. Maybe his students took the lesson to heart. And now they’re complaining about everything.

And perhaps the problem with us smokers is that we don’t complain. For as we are banned from one place, we simply shuffle off somewhere else. But the complaints follow us wherever we go. Once we’ve been banned from smoking indoors, people – Simone Vargas Löfstedt being one example – complain about us smoking outdoors. It never stops. But we don’t complain.

Anyway she was completely wrong about the way I started smoking, and why I started smoking. I didn’t start smoking because my friends were smoking: most of them weren’t. Nor did I start smoking in a social context like a club or bar: I started smoking on my own. Nor did I start smoking because I thought it was “cool”, like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: I didn’t regard it as particularly cool at all. I started smoking because I saw it as my duty to do so.

About Frank Davis

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19 Responses to How I Started Smoking

  1. nisakiman says:

    I suppose you could turn her statement around, and it would be equally plausible.

    Anti-Smoking always starts as a social experiment, but the less people see anti-smokers the less popular it will become.

    In fact, I think there’s a good deal more truth in my slightly altered variant than in the original statement.

    Now all we have to do is to work out how to make anti-smoking less visible…

    • Frank Davis says:

      the less people see anti-smokers the less popular it will become.

      I think that the more people see anti-smokers the less popular they will become. They’re their own worst enemies.

      • I agree that Anti-smokers are their own worst enemies. I started smoking mostly alone as well. My first cigarette was shared with a neighbor girl – I was 8 or 9 years old. Even my first one was a pleasant experience, but I didn’t start smoking until a few years later. It was something I did in the wee hours of the morning while delivering newspapers. It was just something I really liked and enjoyed. I still really like it. I never did it because others were doing it, or to fit in. In fact, none of my friends smoked and so I never smoked around them. Growing up and first starting, it was my own special little ritual and communion.

        As an aside, I found a pub about 2 miles from my house that allows smoking. It’s on Native American land, and apparently, they’re exempt from the law. Needless to say, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time there, sipping ale, sometimes whiskey, and smoking cigarettes and chatting with people. It’s wonderful.

        • Frank Davis says:

          It’s on Native American land, and apparently, they’re exempt from the law.

          Might that be because tobacco is sacred to Native Americans? Perhaps you might ask next time you visit.

        • waltc says:

          No, Frank. It’s because if treaties made with all tribes that they’re exempt from the laws of the states that house their reservations. That said, the state or gederal governments often find devious ways to impose their laws (and taxes) anyway

        • Roobeedoo2 says:

          ‘And at the spot where they had burned First Mother’s bones, there grew another plant, broad-leafed and fragrant. It was First Mother’s breath, and they heard her spirit talking: “Burn this up and smoke it. It is sacred. It will clear your minds, help your prayers, and gladden your hearts.”

          ‘And First Mother’s husband called the first plant Skarmunal, corn, and the second plant utarmur-wayeh, tobacco.’

      • nisakiman says:

        Dunno, Frank. It’s only because the zealots have been shouting so long and so loud that they’ve amassed armies of useful idiots, keen to join in with the bully-fest. If they hadn’t been so high-profile it would never have got to this stage.

  2. Tony says:

    “Although since he’d fathered seven children, I supposed that he must have enjoyed doing at least that.”
    He was probably just doing his eugenic duty. The burden of being of superior stock.

  3. smokingscot says:

    Thought I’d pass on the opinion of “a leading scientist”. That everyone in the western world will stop smoking tobacco and depend entirely on efags. Oh and they’ll also quit drinking alcohol and turn to some substitute I’ve never heard of.

    So go flog your shares in big tobacco and big booze and use your profits to go live in some third world paradise! Watch the folks at Heineken, Budweiser nd such with their long droopy faces, plus the collapse of the Whiskey, Vodka, Sake, Wine etc. Industries and supply chain.

    Some people are so completely out of touch with the real world, they can only exist in academia and this twat’s probably funded by some fake charity that gets grants from the D of H.

    Oh, and in turn said expert gets some stringer to publish his Xmas chuckaway in the virtually bankrupt Independent.

    • Tony says:

      David Nutt owns the patent to a synthetic alcohol substitute. Presumably the “Alcosynth” being plugged in the article.

      • Joe L. says:

        Not surprising at all. This David Nutt character (fitting surname) is further support of my theory regarding the rise of these “New Industrialists.”

        He owns the patent on an unnecessary synthetic substitute for a well-established and highly profitable product (alcohol). Using the guise of “science,” this “expert” is trying to scare people away from drinking alcohol and toward purchasing his snake oil, because it doesn’t cause all the “harmful side effects” of alcohol.

        Add “Alcosynth” to the growing list including NRT products, Chantix, artificial sweeteners, synthetic fat substitutes, “energy-efficient” light bulbs, and self-driving cars–unnecessary junk products promoted by fear-mongering junk science at the expense of the “old” industries (and our freedom of choice as consumers).

        • Rose says:

          Another one who entirely misses the point, apparently alcosynth is to give you the feeling of being slightly tipsy. Nothing about the enjoyable flavour, which for most of us I’m guessing is the main reason to drink, the tipsyness is a side effect, an unpleasant one in my view.

          22 Jan 2015
          “The first drug, which called “alcosynth”, is a drink that mimics alcohol. It a non-toxic inebriant that removes the risks of hangovers, liver toxicity, aggression and loss of control.
          A benzodiazepine derivative, the substance is in the Valium family, but without being addictive or causing withdrawal symptoms, he claims.

          The man behind this marvel is Professor David Nutt, who became famous as the drugs tsar fired by the British government in 2009 for proclaiming that horse-riding is more dangerous than ecstasy.”

          “His second wonder drug is a so-called “chaperone”, which would attenuate the effects of alcohol.
          Take a pill with booze, and it’s impossible to become drunk to the point of incapacitation.”

  4. waltc says:

    I do agree with Nisakiman’s theory. Anti-smoking was certainly a well-engineered and planned- from-on-high social experiment and it’s become an “everybody’s doing it” thing. Or “ the best people are doing it” with the helpful counterpart that only the worst people smoke. (The inconsiderate, selfish, foul-smelling addicts; the working stiffs, the high school dropouts, and the otherwise indigent.) And while most of us started smoking at a time when “everybody was doing it,” there was one major difference between us and the Ants: we found that we (personally, physically, mentally) got actual sensual enjoyment from it. IOW, it wasn’t a fashion statement. (

    As for seeing something and then doing it, the Swede is right in only one aspect: if I’d never seen a chocolate bar, or a green olive, or an Elmore Leonard novel, or a vinyl record of Casals playing Bach, I wouldn’t be doing any of that stuff either.

  5. jaxthefirst says:

    I’m almost the complete opposite of what this Swedish twonk is talking about. I grew up in the 1970s when pretty much everybody, including the vast majority of my friends, smoked cigarettes, copiously and enthusiastically. As a result, I deliberately never started, simply because I didn’t want to be like everyone else. It’s an anti-conformist streak that I’ve always had, I guess – whenever “everybody” is doing something, or owning something, or “really liking” something, there’s always a knee-jerk reaction from me in the opposite direction. And, as I’ve mentioned on here several times, I didn’t actually start smoking until I was almost 30 – just as all those people I knew were busy giving it up, or trying to. Again, I guess, because as everyone was trying to become a non-smoker (like I had been for years), I no longer wanted to be one! I’m really not sure quite how that stacks up against this so-called “expert’s” view that the only reason for starting is other people doing it!

    Just goes to show what miniscule understanding non-smokers – and anti-smokers in particular – have about smoking. They really do make themselves look silly when they start pronouncing from on high (and from a huge distance) about something that they’ve actually not got a clue about. But, when you think about it, how can they? It’s a bit like someone who’s never had a drink spouting off about what makes some people alcoholics, when they don’t even know what having a drink feels like or tastes like or what effect it has, or someone who’s never had children talking in supposedly-knowledgeable terms about childbirth or bringing up kids when all they’ve ever really done is read a few books/papers written by other people with equally poor understanding or experience of whatever they’re writing about. But I guess that’s the price they pay for refusing to talk to the people who do know what it’s like, purely because what those people would tell them might not suit their own pre-conceived ideas about it.

    • Rose says:

      I could never see the point of smoking when I knew that the same plant chemicals were in ordinary vegetables and had absolutely no effect.
      One too many anti-smoking posters about “road tar” set me off on my investigations at the age of eighteen.

      • Rose says:

        Let’s enjoy this one again.

        What’s in a cigarette?

        Cigarettes don’t just contain nicotine. Each cigarette contains over 4000 toxic chemicals many of which are added to make it more appealing to the consumer. Carbon monoxide is one of the better known ones, but there are others worth mentioning too.

        Acetic Acid (vinegar)
        Acetone (nail varnish remover)
        Ammonia (cleaning agent)
        Arsenic (ant poison in the USA)
        Benzene (petrol fumes)
        Cadmium (car battery fluid)
        DDT (insecticide)
        Ethanol (anti-freeze)
        Formaldehyde (embalming fluid)
        Hydrogen Cyanide (industrial pollutant)
        Lead (batteries, petrol fumes)
        Methanol (rocket fuel)
        Tar (road surface tar)

        The warping of plant chemistry, including banned insecticides and trace elements in fertilizers, courtesy of Simon Chapman.

        It’s important to see these things in context, for example –

        Foods Known to Contain Naturally Occurring Formaldehyde
        Apple,Apricot,Banana,Beetroot,Onions,Cabbage,Carrot,Cauliflower,Cucumber,Grape,Kohlrabi, Pear,Plum,Potato,Spinach,Tomato Watermelon.

        Click to access formaldehyde.pdf

  6. jameshigham says:

    Woodbines eh? You weren’t cleaning windows?

  7. beobrigitte says:

    How I started smoking?
    I tried smoking at the age of 12 and my mother smelled it on me. She wasn’t exactly happy, so I continued getting cigarettes a rather unusual way. I didn’t think that smoking made me all of a sudden “older” and It wasn’t that I saw my father smoking, after all, at pre-hormonal age it didn’t invite me to try it.
    For me it was because it was forbidden by my mum, the authority in the house 24/7. That simple.

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