Given my age and my demographic that’s hardly surprising. I should be smart enough by now to know that it’s a killer and nobody I know and socialise with does either. But I have, smoked that is, and I guess my story is not atypical.
First off though a disclaimer. I’ve never been what you’d call a real smoker, I’ve been essentially a social smoker, so I’ve never been able to claim a 20 a day habit. And I haven’t smoked at all since the mid 80s although I did enjoy a couple of cigars in Cuba in 2009.
I was a teenager in the 60s when the prevalence of smoking in the UK was 70% for men and 40% for women. The link between smoking and lung cancer had already been established but there were no warnings on cigarette packets and although there was some segregation for smokers (in the back rows at the cinema, upstairs on the bus) you could generally smoke anywhere. It seemed to be a rite of passage for teenagers to give it a try. I was one and I did.
My friends did too and generally we smoked when we went out and although we had no particular brand allegiance I remember some preference for Benson & Hedges special filter. Of course smoking doesn’t exactly prompt rational behaviour and when we were on holiday in France in 1966 one of our number declared that if he had to choose he’d buy cigarettes before food.
I was at college in the second half of the 60s and those were the days of student militancy on the one hand and the flower power generation on the other. People smoked more than just cigarettes then but when they did the latter tastes had move on and we smoked Disque Bleu. A friend justified it by saying that they were less cancerous because they burnt at a lower temperature.
I started work at Shell in 1970 and although several of us smoked casually one of our cohort was a pack a day man. He reckoned that it was OK to smoke because by the time he got lung cancer there would be a cure. I guess he was wrong. Did he see the error of his ways and give up or has he died? (Staggeringly I’ve just done a quick Google search and found him. It seems that he’s not died and has stayed with Shell for his entire career.)
Health warnings came in in the early 70s which resulted in the anomaly of duty free purchases not damaging your health because they didn’t carry a warning!
I worked in Asia in the mid to late 70s and my taste in cigarettes was clearly influenced by the skill of the advertisers because I switched my allegiance to Rothmans. It was probably the ads featuring smooth airline pilots driving classy cars which did it for me.
This was also the time that I discovered cigars. On the one hand I worked with American oilmen who favoured those from Cuba and on the other we discovered more affordable Filipino cigars. ‘We’ at the time were the expats in Jakarta many of who played soccer together at the weekends. We ritually ended the days of our games with plenty of Bintang beer with which we smoked Filipino cigars.
I continued to smoke cigars, occasionally, when I moved to Hong Kong. Not only was it easy to buy Filipino cigars but you could also buy single Cuban cigars from many of the tobacco outlets and it didn’t break the bank. I have memories of Montecristo number 1s. I don’t know what I paid but it was certainly an order of magnitude less than the £30 you’d pay today in the UK.
I lived in Switzerland throughout the 80s and although the screws started to tighten with respect to anti-smoking legislation you could still smoke just about anywhere. On aeroplanes typically it was smokers in the back except for Lufhansa where it was smoking on the right side of the plane. For a while I shared an office with a lady who smoked Dunhills and as I continued my preference for smoking OPs my brand switched accordingly.
It was in the mid 80s that I had my epiphany. I attended a presentation by our company nurse about heart attacks in which she listed the risk factors. Smoking is in the list of course but I was surprised that the risk from smoking rose steeply even at the 2 or 3 cigarettes a day level. I reckoned at the time that it was the only risk factor I needed to address and just decided to stop smoking. I did. Simple as that. (I was wrong of course about smoking being my only risk factor. As I found out in 2019 cholesterol was also an issue for me. Thankfully I survived that scare and since then diet and medication have reduced by cholesterol to an acceptable level.)
And that’s it. With the exception of a couple of cigars in Cuba in 2009 I’ve not smoked since. Many others have done likewise because the incidence of smoking in the UK is now down to 13%. This is reinforced by aggressive controls on the promotion and sale of cigarettes and, thankfully, extreme controls of where you can smoke. Buses and aeroplanes, restaurants and bars, and all manner of other public places are now smoke free and better, much better for it.
The people in the photo above are me, Mike Moles who’s sadly died, Dave Mason, someone else and Ed Libbey who I met for lunch earlier this year. Mike, Ed and I shared a house in Cambridge at the time of the photograph.