Today marks one year since my last cigarette. A whole year smoke free, the first time I’ve gone more than a couple of months without since I was 18, and yet I’ve never considered myself a smoker.
Tobacco smoke has an extremely distinctive smell. When I was younger, the smell of cigarettes reminded me of my paternal grandparents house (both now non-smokers after 20+ year habits). Even just a passing curl of smoke on the street would invoke strong memories of weekends spent with cousins and family at their house, of beans-on-toast for dinner, finding frogspawn in the garden pond, packing the truck for a fishing trip on the boat. Very few scents elicit such strong memories with such little effort.
Despite their habits, my grandparents always discouraged smoking. My father, to his credit, was always staunchly anti-smoking. He never smoked as far as I’m aware, and he loathed even picking up tobacco at the duty-free section of the airport for his parents. I was never exposed to any encouragement to smoke, and so even when my peers picked up the habit as teenagers, the little white sticks never held much appeal.
I still have vague childhood memories of when smoking was permitted indoors in the UK. The smoking ban came into effect in England in July 2006, when I was 14. As my nuclear family were all non-smokers, there was no real noticeable change at this point for us. Nobody started to go outside for a cigarette, because nobody ever had before. Despite this, I strongly believe that the smoking ban had an inadvertent butterfly effect which led to me picking up a cigarette for the first time four years later.
What’s the worst that could happen?
After turning 18, the legal drinking age in the UK, I naturally started spending more time (legally) drinking in bars and clubs. Cigarettes still held no real appeal at this point, however the smoking ban of 2006 moved the social focal point from the inside of a bar to the smoking area outside, at least once an hour or so. As a non-smoker, standing around like a lemon watching everyone else’s drinks for five minutes every hour is not an appealling prospect, so there’s a natural draw to filing outside with the group, even just to finish a conversation. This naturally segues into being offered a cigarette one too many times, after one too many drinks, and thinking “sure, why not? What’s the worst that can happen?”
After that, the boiling-frog anecdote takes hold. Initially, you’re not a smoker because you ‘only have a couple when you’re out for a drink’. A few months later, you have a stressful shift at work, and have a cigarette with your colleagues after clocking out in the early hours of the morning. You’re not a smoker though, because you ‘only have a tab on the night shift’. Further down the line, you find yourself buying a pack of Lambert and Butler on the way into university at 10am before an exam. You’re still not a smoker though, because you’re ‘only having a couple to calm your nerves’. After university, you’re smoking on the way to work. You’re still not a smoker though, because you ‘only smoke two a day’.
I have made each and every one of those arguments to myself at some point over the last six years, usually more than once. The overarching argument I’ve always made to myself though, is that ‘I can stop whenever I want’. Which is true in a sense. I’ve never really been addicted to cigarettes, not in the way some people are. That’s not to say I’ve never had cravings. I’ve had cravings for cigarettes since the first time I inhaled the nicotine into my lungs. Even today, one whole year since my last cigarette, I still have a craving on occasion.
Most often, the cravings come at the sweet spot of about three pints into a night, not drunk or tipsy yet, but enough to feel the warmth of the alcohol taking hold. Walking outside to head to another bar, taking a deep breath, drinking in the cold night air. Catching a glimpse of the spark firing off a lighter wheel in the peripheral vision, watching the fire erupt upwards, briefly illuminating the cigarette in the smoker’s lips before they shield the flame from the wind. Turning away, as the first silver wisps of smoke drift over, carrying the scent of a thousand memories in the mix of burning paper and tobacco embers. That’s when the cravings come.
It’s not right to romanticise smoking in this way, given that I know the health risks, but cigarettes do invoke the emotions in such a way. Nothing else really has the power to change your mood so quickly; one draw can calm you down in an instant, like the real-time pain relief of a cortisone injection flooding your joints.
Last summer in late June, I flew to Frankfurt for a football tournament (the same tournament I went to in Lisbon this year). I took two packs of cigarettes with me, and I got through the first in just a couple of days. After the tournament, I caught the train to Cologne for a few days, as it worked out a similar price to get the train and then fly back to Scotland from Cologne-Bonn airport as it did from Frankfurt International.
Six hours and four cigarettes after checking into the hostel in Cologne, I met a German girl from Stuttgart, travelling with her Canadian cousin. We became firm friends almost instantly, like a whirlwind holiday romance without the ‘romance’ part. She had an incredible spirit and positive outlook on life, and we clicked immediately. I told her things about myself that I’ve never really been able to put into words before, or since, and she told the same to me. One of the many things we talked about was her best friend from back in Stuttgart, who had died of cancer the previous year. She told me that her last cigarette was the day she found out about his diagnosis.
I never told her at the time, but the day we talked about that was the day of my last cigarette. I was amazed that her friend, a man I’d never meet, could have such a profound impact on me, but her words about him were so powerful that I couldn’t even think about another cigarette. I left my last pack in the hostel bin, a year ago to the day, before I left to catch my flight home.
We kept in touch on social media for a while, but I haven’t spoken to her in months. I want to tell her what an impact her sincerity and honesty had on me, and that she inadvertently put a stop to what was no doubt spiralling towards a serious bad habit, but I guess some things are better left unsaid. In a way, she is my Ulysses girl, having such an influence on the direction the last year has gone for me. I have no doubt that without her as a catalyst, I would by now definitely have to call myself a smoker.
“We had our fun, I used to light your flame. Like the dancing smoke that rose, we tried to find our way.” - Bon Jovi’s ‘Last Cigarette’