When you’re a smoker, family and friends aren’t shy about calling you stupid, weak and irresponsible. Strangers cough theatrically when you pass them in the streets. After a while, this kind of social condemnation is strangely hard to give up.
I should be able to remember my first time. I’d like to start with it; I could paint a sepia-toned scene of youthful rebellion—slipping a single cigarette from the pack tucked in my father’s winter coat—or offer up a very special episode of teenage peer pressure, where I choke down a Belmont to impress the bad boy blowing smoke rings after class. Ominous piano music would swell in the background; it would all be very dramatic. Or at least it would be something. Instead, what I remember is that a lot of my friends in high school smoked, and I would bum a couple from them, and then I wouldn’t have one for a while, and then I would, and then when I was 16 or 17, I graduated to buying my own.
What I remember, too, is that smoking wasn’t much of a statement in the late-’90s. It didn’t seem to convey anything meaningful about your social class or moral character. It was just an activity that happened in a whole bunch of places: in restaurants, in bars, at concerts, at home and on television. It wasn’t cool because it wasn’t conspicuous. As far as I could tell, holding a cigarette made you stand out about as much as holding an umbrella.
Of course I knew it was bad for me, and addictive. But I was capable of keeping this knowledge alongside the certainty that I’d be able to quit when I wanted to. And for many years, I really didn’t want to. Smoking is an intimate, sensory ritual: the taut click of the lighter, the sizzle of the cigarette catching flame, the palpable weight of that first drag and then—I loved this best, especially at night—my breath made visible by the exhaled smoke. Those deep, conscious breaths that followed were like a decidedly less healthy but equally calming form of yoga. Obviously, I appreciated the jolt of nicotine, too. But how many other pleasures are as dependable and as easily transported?
In my early 20s, I made a few vague attempts at quitting, because it felt like something I should do. Also, I had watched an episode of Oprah that used high-tech computer software to show pretty twins my age what they’d look like at 50. The twin who’d never had a smoke in her life, predictably, looked hot. The pack-a-day twin ended up with four teeth and three strands of hair and dirty-Kleenex skin. That scared me into quitting long enough to feel the effects of withdrawal—for two weeks, I cycled between weeping, raging and dulling the pain with McCain Deep ’n Delicious. Then I bought some expensive face cream and went back to enjoying my cigarettes.
But as I retreated to that familiar comfort, the landscape for Toronto smokers began to look very different. In 2001, smoking was banned in restaurants. In 2004, it was banned in bars. Two years later, designated smoking rooms—those last, beautiful refuges—were made illegal as well, and smokers were ushered out into the cold open air, where we huddled together a respectful distance from any awnings or overhangs. In a short period of time, the city’s smokers—nearly 20 per cent of Toronto adults—had become incredibly conspicuous, and that didn’t make us cool, after all. It made us outcasts.
Which meant that, just as quickly, it became acceptable to treat smokers in a way that fit their outcast status. I’m not suggesting that a person flicking ash at a stroller doesn’t deserve to be called out, loudly and profanely. But I am staggered by the moral condemnation that people—friends and total strangers alike—feel entitled to casually toss off. I’ve been called weak (“Just stop already!”). I’ve been called stupid (“Don’t you know what you’re doing to yourself?”). One woman outside the passport office told me, without a whiff of hyperbole, that I was the worst kind of evil.
It’s not as though I disagreed: I was weak and I was stupid (although, objectively, perhaps not the worst kind of evil). Increasingly, I took all of that shame and even began pre-empting it, treating everyone around me to an elaborate routine of self-flagellation as I eased out the door for a consoling puff. And there, waiting for me just past the overhang, as I knew they would be, were my fellow pariahs.
Hear what other Toronto smokers have to say at http://thegrid.to/smokersvideo.
Next page: The curse of the smoker-as-stereotype