Aidan Smith: Kids, I endured a pea-souper of ciggie smoke so you won't have to

I’ve still got the old school jotter and, frankly, am embarrassed at my spelling. My maths, though, is gold-star standard.

“If a man had 78 sigrets and he smokt 13 how many would he have left to smok?”

The teacher had tasked the class with basic subtraction for which we were to use examples from the everyday and for some strange reason I didn’t choose carrots or peas for the sums. “If the man went to the shop and buyd 102 more sigrets,” I continued, “and then smokt 38 what would be the total number he would still have to smok so there would be no sigrets left to smok?”

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That man - that guinea-pig, that beagle - puffed like a lum for two whole pages of the lesson. If he had existed it wouldn’t have been for long, though we knew nothing of the dangers of smoking and grown-ups seemed pretty ignorant of them as well.

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Changed days. Now governments are racing to be the first to produce the first generation banned from ever smoking. Last year, New Zealand decreed that anyone born after 2008 would never be able to purchase cigarettes. From 2027 the legal age - currently 18 - will be increased yearly.

England could follow suit. This was the most striking recommendation of the new report to Westminster on how best to become smoke-free by 2030. And the same law could come into force here with Holyrood, following publication of the English study, admitting to a “refreshing” of objectives. Previously, the target for Scotland had been to cut smoking to five percent of adults by 2034.

“Refreshing”. That’s an interesting word for anyone who grew up over the course of three amendments to the original Clean Air Act - and might have wondered when we could expect to experience this luxurious atmosphere. The thing was, we didn’t wonder.

The magnificent Lauren Bacall made smoking sexy in the golden age of Hollywood, but it was far removed from the pea-souper reality, writes Aidan Smith. PIC: Moviestore/ShutterstockThe magnificent Lauren Bacall made smoking sexy in the golden age of Hollywood, but it was far removed from the pea-souper reality, writes Aidan Smith. PIC: Moviestore/Shutterstock
The magnificent Lauren Bacall made smoking sexy in the golden age of Hollywood, but it was far removed from the pea-souper reality, writes Aidan Smith. PIC: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Another interesting word is “staggered”. The New Zealand initiative, I read, aims to kill off smoking entirely by utilising a “staggered” approach. Well, we staggered. Off the top decks of buses and onto grass verges where, heads birling with the fug from so many Capstan Full Strength and Senior Service, we were in need of a wee lie down before school and those ciggie-based arithmetical challenges.

Later, a bit older, we staggered out of the local flea-pit gasping for breath after the Player’s No 6 and Embassy Regal-induced smokestorms, so there weren’t the excitable, instant critiques of Emmanuelle, Mandingo and A Clockwork Orange that successful flouting of their X-ratedess merited. Never mind, the movies could be reviewed on the bus home. Er, maybe not …

Entering the world of work, everyone smoked in my first newspaper office apart from me. The walls were dripping yellow and when deadlines approached some of the senior hacks would have the next fag lit before its predecessor had been stubbed out.

All of this was normal, all of this was life in Scotland, and we didn’t expect it to change. My father smoked, in the house, and as a TV producer made programmes about authors and artists who smoked. Then one day, right after our football team had beaten the local rivals 7-0, he decided he’d stop discolouring the lampshades. A few years later, obviously still requiring the hit, he took up snuff, but his smoking endures in a handsome portrait in my living-room.

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Then, after all the lighting up came enlightenment. Grim prognoses, gruesome images of blackened lungs, warnings on the packets and eventually - Scotland leading the way - a ban on smoking in public places.

The next step - the New Zealand step - might not arrive smoothly. “The end of our liberty” was the headline on one column on the English plan to toughen the tobacco laws while another claimed it was part of a “worrying desire to infantilise young people”.

Surely, though, if relieving some of the pressure on doctors and hospitals from having to deal with smoking-related illnesses was a crucial aim of the earlier crackdowns, then the NHS in its current wheezing condition has even greater need of them.

Admittedly some of the anti-smoking measures being suggested seem a bit nanny-state, such as a beer-garden ban and, even more extreme, signs on beaches ordering folk to stub it out. But maybe if you’re Scottish you’ll contend that the seaside never gets too crowded - and if you survived passive smoking in (very) confined spaces before the term came into general use you might be reasoning: where’s the harm?

Yet another rule under consideration would require films and TV programmes showing smoking to carry an adult 18 rating. Just imagine if such restrictions had always been in force. Those brilliant films noir from Hollywood’s golden era often showed the leading man and his femme fatale smoking together because they couldn’t be seen having sex - and still the screen smouldered. Think of To Have and Have Not and Lauren Bacall catching Humphrey Bogart’s tossed matches, sparking up and throwing the book away. Faced with such a curb, director Howard Hawks might have ditched the classic scene.

Worse, the Dandy comic perhaps wouldn’t have shown Desperate Dan smoking a dustbin full of rubbish through a drainpipe - or a shipload of tobacco with his mouth glued to one of the funnels. Oh how we, the sweetie cigarette generation, laughed at that.

When a four-year-old sees David Bowie holding a ciggie on the cover of his father’s copy of the Young Americans album he will first alert Fireman Sam then ask: “Dad, did you ever smoke?” To all my children I’ve always said I didn’t but the truth is, having nicked a packet of my father’s Marlboros, I tried and hated it. Obviously I feel incredibly heroic having survived the permanent pea-souper of my youth, but the message is clear: don’t smok.



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