A bizarre custom redolent of a dark, vanished era

A significant footnote in the history of Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries concerns the mass inhalation of tobacco, writes our historian from the future. Today, in the healthy, well-ordered 22nd century, we can look back with wonderment to the momentous date of 1 July 2007, when “smoking”, as it was called, definitively went into retreat. It had been popular, fashionable, even, as they used to say, “cool”, but from now on it was increasingly unacceptable in a clean, modern society.

But what was smoking? Who were these smokers? The habit of puffing on dried tobacco leaves in cigarettes, cigars and pipes had acquired widespread, totemic appeal during that tempestuous time of change, the 20th century. A cigarette denoted independence of spirit, individuality. A pipe suggested a capacity for thoughtful contentment. A cigar denoted status, wealth. In those hedonistic, self-obsessed days, to smoke was for many people to be someone, to be alive.

Even at Cambridge University, where members of the establishment were traditionally educated, smoking concerts or “smokers” were held in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, it was thought that the point of these events was to be entertained by brilliant young undergraduates; now historians have concluded that they were acts of communal self-poisoning. Showbusiness stars of the future – “Professor” Bamber Gascoigne, Peter Cook, “Dr” Jonathan Miller – launched their careers at celebratory rituals of shared addiction.

Yet we can now see that, even earlier in the century, there was a growing realisation that smokers were, quite literally, playing with fire. The popular song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” suggested – daringly, for the time – that proximity to a lit cigarette was an unpleasant experience. Later, the 1950s hit “Smokey Joe’s Café” contained, behind its jaunty rhythm and guileless harmonies, a dire warning of the dangers of passive smoking. The American crooner Billy Joel later took up the theme in his song “Piano Man”, alluding to a barman who is “quick with a joke or to light up your smoke/But there’s some place that he’d rather be.” No need to spell out where that place would be – a clean, smoke-free environment!

It was to be a rocky road to public health. The idea that all private behaviour is the legitimate concern of government, so natural to us today, was resisted in those dark, smoke-clogged days. After the 2007 ban, actors and musicians continued to “light up” on stage as if poisoning were permissible in the name of art. When the Department of Health ruled that fake cigarettes would also be banned on the grounds that by representing something illegal, they were themselves illegal, there were squawks of protest from libertarians.

But the tide of opinion was against them. Those who defended smoking were now recognised as social enemies who recklessly endangered the health of others for their own pleasure. Someone, possibly a scientist, suggested that contact with the skin of a smoker could be carcinogenic, particularly for kiddies. For their own good, smokers were denied health care. When sentencing, judges took into account the smoking history of the accused.

Smoke Enforcement Officers – “stubbies”, as they were affectionately called – played an important part in this great campaign. They were given the right to enter homes in order to place child protection orders on minors exposed to smoke, and later the power of arrest. Stubbies became heroic figures and would appear with foster mums, primary school teachers and lollipop ladies on a TV show called Great Briton of the Year.

Meanwhile the “Grass-a-Gasper” campaign, instituted on the BBC’s Crimewatch, was a huge success, with hundreds of thousands of decent citizens reporting to the police colleagues, neighbours and even members of their family who still smoked. Occasionally, this new concern became excessive, with health-and-safety gangs roaming the parks in search of solitary smokers to brutalise.

To avoid the threat of further violence, the Government finally banned all forms of smoking in 2021. A cleaner, healthier and more orderly Britain had at last been established.