Martyn McLaughlin: Obama's failure to quit smoking is sign of humanity, not weakness

TEN months into his historic first term, ill winds gather round President Barack Obama. Domestically, an automotive industry that was beleaguered a year ago has now collapsed altogether, and growing ranks of unemployed demonstrate on the streets.

Abroad, hopes of a new dialogue with Russia lie in ruins, his exit policy for Iraq has become the joke of the Senate, and Tehran is on the verge of testing a new nuclear arsenal.

Alone in the Oval Office, drumming his fingers on the timbers of what was once HMS Resolute, Obama looks out at the cold Washington winter and makes what will prove to be the most important decision of his presidency: walking out to the Rose Garden, he bends down at a clump of chrysanthemums and retrieves a small, rectangular packet hidden beneath their flowerheads. After checking the First Lady is out of sight, a flame flickers, and the 44th President of the United States closes his eyes and draws longingly on a Marlboro. "Of all the crises I face," he says to himself, exhaling a billow of comforting smoke, "not one will now go unsolved."

His status as a smoker is a facet of President-elect Obama's character that has rarely been reported. Yet the publication this week of a photograph of a louche young president-to-be, filling his lungs with carcinogens, has ignited debate. The picture, taken during Obama's college days, kicks into touch the carefully managed presidential campaign that ensured the C-word was seldom mentioned.

Now, the US media is keen to establish Obama's smoking routine. Has he given up? Cut down? Or does he continue to bum cigarettes from aides and light them away from the glare of cameras?

Obama's position has been contradictory. He has quit, he insists, but admits to periods of "falling off the wagon".

That middle ground, I'm afraid, does not exist. Obama is a smoker, but for that he should not be lambasted. Even President Bush has admitted to smoking a cigar on rare occasions, claiming it helps him think – apparently, he has one every 20 years.

Obama's habit is far more ingrained, but in numerous other ways he has demonstrated the remarkable self-discipline and resolve that has taken him to the highest political office in the free world. Smoking is not a sign of his weakness, but of his humanity.

Were he to admit his battle, it would inspire America's smokers like no self-help manual or nicotine replacement therapy could.

For the moment, though, we should let him puff away. The above hypotheses for 2009 may be grim, but it will be a strenuous year for Obama – if the odd cigarette can ease his stress levels, so be it.

Ambulance chasing into the nursery

THE time has long since passed when it was novel to be shocked by those programmes from the outer echelons of the digital TV channels.

The other day, however, the usually tranquil and jolly nature of a well-known children's channel was shattered by an advert unequalled in its and depressing message.

The placement was for Kidz Claimz, a body of solicitors which specialises in compensation claims for children. Now, financially strapped parents can demand sizeable cheques for those humdrum mishaps that are part of an ordinary childhood.

Little one lodged a Meccano part up the left nostril? You're entitled to thousands. Has your toddler suffered emotional torment after an unfortunate unison of letters in his plate of alphabet spaghetti? You'll be a millionaire!

How long before hard-up parents, sensing a ruse, push that bit harder on the swing?

• GIVEN that he launched the Teletubbies' musical career, I hold no faith in Simon Cowell's powers of aural discernment. But I fail to understand the internet campaigners determined to prevent The X Factor winner's single becoming the Christmas No 1.

Alexandra Burke's recording of Hallelujah is on course for the top spot, but tens of thousands have downloaded Jeff Buckley's version. Organisers claim to be fighting "cynical manufactured pop dirtying up our charts".

Surely this is akin to protesting about greed in the financial sector? It is, and will forever be, one of life's givens.