In Praise of Five Cigarettes a Day

SMOKE IN HERE PLEASEAt the recently smoked-in Heathrow Airport, as at almost every airport I can think of, it is necessary to go outside to smoke. Not an easy task, if you’ve got a long layover. We had to go through immigration in order to even get outside, last time. (“Purpose of visit?” “Smoking.” No seriously, I wrote that on the form.)

Once you’ve been cleared for smoking at Heathrow, you have to go in a little glassed-in outdoor pen reminiscent of a zoo enclosure. There you will puff in uncomfortably close proximity to a bunch of guilty-looking fellow-smokers, many of them in airport staff uniforms. Smoking in the pen is so shameful that you don’t even get the pleasurable feeling of being in a wicked little cabal, like we have in office life in the States. A policeman came by at one point and put a stray smoker who’d been wandering just outside the pen back inside. It feels weak, dirty, to be huddled out there smoking, kind of furtive. To say nothing of the uneasy sense that passing tourists might photograph you, or toss you a sardine.

And London used to be such a smokers’ town! In the 1980s you’d be greeted at the pub with a wall of Silk Cut fumes so thick it was impossible to tell whether or not your friends were even in there until you got within six inches of them. But now there are glassed-in outdoor smokers’ habitats, and posters all over the place celebrating “Smokefree England.” Their plans went far beyond keeping non-smokers away from smoke-and now it’s got much the same smugly clean-livin’, scolding air that our own Yankee anti-smoking folk give off.

So this thing has spread, is what has happened, this thing of making pariahs of smokers, punishing them with ostracism. Smoking Kills!-as if it just kills generically, kills everyone, and not just the addicts who are torching three packs a day. (Which, yes, it may!) There’s a weird, angry vengefulness against smokers, who are now treated like “outsiders” in more than just the literal sense of having to cluster round the ashcan at some specified distance from an office building.


At the same time, though, everybody is staring at the various beauties of Mad Men and thinking how sexy and exciting all that smoking is.

A very similar kind of Tea Party absolutism succeeded in outlawing liquor for thirteen long U.S. years, you will recall. The Volstead Act (1920-1933) didn’t really stop anyone from drinking, of course; it only drove liquor underground, cheapened and degraded it. Only imagine having to hire a bootlegger every time you’re about to have a party. Basically they smashed Henri Charpentier’s whole wine cellar, tens of thousands of bottles of beautiful wine, so that people could go and addle themselves on shoe polish, bathtub gin or whatever.

The neo-prohibitionist atmosphere around smoking means increased anxiety for those of us who still enjoy a cigarette. Smokers have been harassed into a mortified, self-flagellating condition, a subtle little longing to die, almost. Some quit, which is good! And some say, fuck it, I’m going to die of something, so why struggle so hard to stave off the day? That’s the attitude that explains why smoking tends to go hand in hand with depression.

But as Richard Klein writes in the thought-provoking Cigarettes are Sublime: “warning smokers or neophytes of the dangers entices them more powerfully to the edge of the abyss, where, like travelers in a Swiss landscape, they can be thrilled by the subtle grandeur of the perspectives on mortality that open up by the little terrors in every puff. Cigarettes are bad. That is why they are good–not good, not beautiful, but sublime.”

Such a lovely passage; it always reminds me of this:


Furthermore, as we were getting round to observing earlier, smoking hasn’t lost an iota of its immemorial glamor. It’s also thoughtful, meditative and sexy, a contemplative space apart from all other rituals whether solitary or shared. The deep and abiding pleasures of smoking are in no way to be derided.

I therefore wish to propose a better way to deal with the deadly scourge of tobacco, one based on our reasonably successful taming of Demon Alcohol. The puritanical demand for a measure of guilt to go with every pleasure is quintessentially American, yet one can now knock back a cocktail or two with complete impunity. (Magazines are full of advice about how you will live to be a thousand if you have a glass or two of wine every day! Only imagine what they would have made of that, back in the 1920s.)

So I write to ask, first, that the same impunity be granted to a restrained, temperate level of smoking; and second, to advocate for that habit of restraint.

I believe we ought to encourage smokers to have a reasonable amount and be happy, rather than telling them to QUIT OR DIE! Indeed, the ideal of moderation would be very beneficial in a lot of areas. Healthy, restrained, pleasurable indulgence!-we could have that for all manner of things, such as taking drugs, exercise, videogaming, gambling and working.

After years of quitting smoking, starting again and blah, I have myself managed to achieve the most marvelously peaceful and pleasant rate of five or so cigarettes per day. Sometimes if I have cocktails, a few more, and sometimes less. It doesn’t interfere with my yoga, I don’t cough, etc. Here is how I did it, for those who may be interested in cutting down to a rational level:

1. Have only the amount you want, even if it is only a puff or two. One cigarette is really a huge portion, along the lines of a Cheesecake-Factory-sized entree. Leave the rest outside for later, or throw it out, if you are rich, and if you want to.

2. Don’t smoke at your desk; go outside or take a walk. By which I mean, have just the cigarette by itself and really enjoy it, don’t smoke during some other activity.

3. Wait until you really want one, and know that you can have as much as you want, then.

Yes, of course we may still worry about the one- and two-pack-a-day smoker, in the same way we pity and fear for the man who greets the day with a half-dozen shots of tequila, having thereby lost his grip on everything from his career to his bowels. But we don’t worry for a moment about anybody who likes to pop out for a drink or two with his mates after work, for once all the tapas are polished off with a final draught of club soda to clear the palate, a temperate reveller won’t even blow .08. He will, in fact, be just fine tomorrow morning for work, refreshed and restored by his moment off the hamster wheel. Why, therefore, should we worry about the smoker of similarly grown-up habits; why not accord the temperate smoker the same respect we bestow on the moderate drinker?

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.