I can pinpoint the exact moment when I decided to stop smoking. It was one night last October. I was standing in the garden, courageously working my way through a Marlboro Menthol, undeterred by the fact that I had a chest infection. The rain was virtually horizontal: between that and the explosive cough that every other drag occasioned, it was quite hard to keep the cigarette alight.
A less dogged man would have stopped and taken his wheezing chest indoors. But I was stuck with cigarettes, even though I had cut down from 20 a day to a mere five some years ago. I stuck with them even when the price became ludicrous – a week before, at a kiosk in central London, I had barely got change from a tenner. I had stuck with cigarettes despite the health warnings and the photo on the packet of the guy with the cancerous growth on his throat, and the face my wife made when the financial adviser mentioned the cost of life insurance. What was a bit of rain and a hacking cough? I wasn’t going to be denied the simple pleasure of smoking, even when it was evidently a profoundly unpleasant experience.
And then it hit me: what the hell was I doing? It wasn’t just that I was ill and making myself worse by doing something that stood a fair chance of killing me, although the health risks had been increasingly hard to put out of my mind: two friends had been diagnosed with cancer (neither was smoking-related, both survived, but still). It was more that I suddenly seemed to catch sight of myself. Like, I suspect, virtually every teenager who starts smoking, I had taken up the habit because I thought it was cool. Despite the best efforts of anti-smoking campaigners, popular culture is still packed with images, albeit old ones, of people who looked good with a cigarette in their hand: the Beatles; Bob Dylan; the Ratpack; Miles Davis; innumerable French actors in nouvelle vague films; David Bowie on the cover of Young Americans, or, even better, onstage as the Thin White Duke, the blue packet of Gitanes protruding from his waistcoat pocket the only flash of colour in his monochrome outfit.
I suppose I was subconsciously labouring under the impression that, if I smoked, some of their cool would transfer itself to me. A mere 25 years later, I realised that it definitely hadn’t. I wasn’t Jean-Paul Belmondo, insouciantly reaching for a post-coital Gitanes while Jeanne Moreau or Anna Karina slumbered next to him. I was a 42-year-old man on a patio in Brighton in the tipping rain, wearing his wife’s cagoule, and the last time I had coughed, a lump of mucus had shot out of my mouth and landed on my foot. What the hell was I doing? That was it: I was packing in.
I clearly didn’t have the willpower to quit without some kind of crutch. Part of me didn’t really want to quit at all. I loved the taste of cigarettes, the smell of their smoke, I associated them with parties and fun, calm moments of solitary reflection and conspiratorially gossipy conversations. So I opted for an e-cigarette, which, as my wife was quick to point out, isn’t really giving up so much as swapping one addiction for another, less harmful one, which explains why they are so successful.
Even so, the life of the vaper isn’t without minor privations. If the argument that e-cigarettes will ultimately lure kids into smoking seems specious, I suspect that’s largely because the one thing that smoking an e-cigarette definitely doesn’t do is make you look good. Quite the opposite: whatever the health benefits, it feels faintly pathetic whipping out an e-cigarette when the people around you are smoking the real thing, like turning up at the Giro d’Italia on a bike with stabilisers.
If an aura of cool has somehow clung to cigarettes despite the best efforts of anti-smoking campaigners – despite the fact that the most visible pro-smoking campaigner in Britain is currently Nigel Farage, a man with all the insouciant cool of a toddler on a bouncy castle – then the opposite seems to be true of e-cigarettes. From the outset, when they were introduced to Britain by a businessman called Greg Carson, who attempted to market them under the regrettable name Electro Fag, a certain naffness has been hard to shake. In my case, said naffness has been exacerbated by the fact that, yesterday, I managed to knock my e-cig on to the floor, breaking off the button that activates it: until I replace it, the only way I can get it to work is by jabbing the space where the button used to be with a ballpoint pen. Doing this, I find myself reflecting that I’m clearly some distance from the effortless fag-in-hand cool of the Ratpack or Miles Davis. If Bowie in Thin White Duke mode had sauntered onstage with the intro of Station to Station blaring moodily, then whipped out an e-cigarette and started frantically prodding it with a pen to make it work, I am fairly certain that iconic status would have been harder to come by.
But it doesn’t matter, because the e-cigarette works. After 25 years, I have stopped smoking cigarettes. It hasn’t conquered my addiction to nicotine, but it has altered my attitude to cigarettes. I know this because of the one time since October when I faltered. En route to interviewing a heavy metal band in Las Vegas, I mislaid my e-cig. With, I have to admit, a certain excitement, I decided I didn’t have time to replace it and instead bought 20 Marlboro Menthol. I lit one, and to my horror, it tasted disgusting: I had got used to the lighter, sweeter flavour of the e-liquid vapour (I use RY4, which adds a delightful hint of caramel and vanilla to the tobacco-flavour base). Worse, it made me feel disgusting, swim-headed and nauseous, which I suppose is down to the chemicals present in fags that aren’t there in e-cig vapour.
So I did something that the guy in his wife’s cagoule, coughing his guts up in the rain, would have considered an act of lunacy: I threw a virtually full packet of cigarettes in the bin.
Source: The Guardian