I felt a genuine pang of sadness at this week’s news that Barack Obama has given up smoking. The pester-power of the women in his life, his wife and daughters, have apparently broken this proud man at last. Michelle Obama announced her triumph on American television.
How far we’ve come since tobacco was seen as one of life’s bounties, something to be treasured. “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,” the old TV commercials once boasted. There were two songs called “Love is a Cigarette” which made the romantic case for tobacco. “And just like a cigarette,” went one, “I never felt thrill of life until you touched my lips.”
Smoking no longer represents the thrill of life, at least in respectable company. In fact, it has become an easy symbol of human weakness, self-indulgence and personal irresponsibility. During Obama’s glory days as an occasional smoker, a writer in the Wall Street Journal asked, in all apparent seriousness, whether someone who confessed himself to be unable to give up smoking possessed “the intelligence, strength and human willpower to lead the most powerful nation on Earth”.
Enough now, surely, of this primness. The sound of scolding and tut-tutting from the ranks of the concerned has become tedious. We know that smoking is bad for the health, but it is also true that people make choices in their lives involving the balance between risk and pleasure. It is not obligatory to put safety and longevity before all other considerations in daily life. These people are not lesser citizens, only different from the majority.
Increasingly, difference is something to be treasured. At a time of mass conformity, when disapproval is in the air we breathe, a political leader who dares to smoke now and then is not showing weakness but strength. The famous photograph of Obama taking a joyous drag on a cigarette while a student is warm, human and strangely life-affirming.
Although I happen not to smoke cigarettes myself, I find myself admiring those in public life who still defiantly spark up, even when cameras are around. They are striking a light for individuality. If, as a society, we now believe that the human and economic cost of nicotine addiction is unfeasibly high then we should ban the habit, and have done. After that, the Government should take a long, stern look at alcohol and its considerably worse effects on the way we live.
Most thinking people will conclude that making smoking illegal would be too much of an infringement on personal decision-making. In a similar spirit, the nagging should end. We now agree that smoking should not be promoted, that it should be kept away from children. Surely we are grown-up enough to accept that, if the most powerful man in the world likes now and then to relax with a cigarette, when safely away from the cameras, that should be his right.
Perhaps what really annoys the campaigners, and motivates their bullying of smokers, is not so much the thought of its effect as the pleasure it affords: a socially acceptable contemporary form of puritanism is at work.
In America, a new smoking substitute called the e-cigarette is already feeling the effect of the new primness. Battery-operated, it provides a nicotine fix in the form of vapour, without harmful tar or smoke. Tobacco firms are worried and, weirdly, are being helped by the anti-smoking lobby. Already there are attempts to ban the electronic cigarette on the grounds that its manufacture is unregulated. The real problem, one suspects, is that it is an uncomfortably accurate imitation of the real thing, that it gives an inappropriate amount of pleasure.
Whether his nicotine treat is electronic or the real smoking thing, I hope that Barack Obama quietly slips off the wagon as he has done in the past. He is, after all, president of the Land of the Free.
Independent, Friday, 11 February 2011