TODAY, it is almost unbelievable that there was a cigarette vending machine in the entrance hall of my university residence in 1979. One day, I slid a coin into the slot and listened to the grinding of invisible gears until a packet of Craven A Menthol quietly slipped into the container below. I returned to my room on the sixth floor to practise.
Having spent a semester in the company of my worldly-wise fellow students, the clumsy English with which I arrived on campus from an Afrikaans home became fairly well oiled, but an attitude of carefree sophistication kept eluding me. For this reason I had to learn to smoke.
I became aware of this strategy in movie theatres — from Breakfast at Tiffany's in 1961 (with the irresistible Holly Golightly's omnipresent cigarette as a symbol of her self-confidence and quest for independence) to Grease in 1978, in which Sandy Olsson's transformation from the picture of innocence in sensible pastels to rock goddess in black leather and red heels was topped off with a cigarette.
You’ve come a long way, baby.
Torches of freedom
In films of the 1940s and 1950s, smoking was associated with glamour and romance, and after 1960 a cigarette became the indispensable accessory of strong female characters who didn't allow outdated rules to limit them. However, as more information about the connection between tobacco and lung cancer came to light, the “torches of freedom" (the phrase with which Big Tobacco emancipated first-wave feminists in the 1920s) burnt slightly less brightly in the 1980s. But my own torch of freedom really caught fire when I joined a daily newspaper as a reporter.
Every profession has its mythology, and in journalism the myth of hard-drinking chain-smokers and difficult individuals who flout the rules persists. Among others, it was instigated by Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Nick Nolte in Under Fire (1983) and James Woods in Salvador (1986). Sally Field in Absence of Malice (1981) is not entirely innocent either.
The same myth persists regarding writers: Albert Camus, Umberto Eco, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, George Eliot and Dylan Thomas. As with many others, there was always a burning cigarette between their fingers or their lips, and they talked to us through a veil of smoke.
By the end of the 1980s, cigarette advertising had not yet been banned — this would happen only in 2000 and would wreak havoc on the advertising industry. I was working at an agency where I wrote, among other things, radio commercials for Dunhill, a British brand that originated in 1908 as a supposedly “hygienic cigarette", and had since expanded to clothing and accessories.
It was also Hunter S. Thompson's cigarette of choice, but there was no internet at the time, so how were we to know? We all smoked Camel that we hid in Dunhill packets in case a customer arrived unexpectedly.
When k.d. lang's album Drag was released in 1997, I was living and working in Johannesburg, where I shared an office with an avid smoker who constantly had a Gauloise hanging from his lips because his beloved Gitanes were no longer available in the country. I was in my Benson & Hedges phase. All the songs on the album have something to do with smoking and we listened to them while we worked: Don't Smoke in Bed, My Old Addiction, The Last Cigarette…
At the dawn of 2000, smokers were less welcome in the office than that colleague who wanted to sell you a raffle ticket for her child's school fundraiser. From then on you would smoke on the sidewalk, sometimes in the rain. It was better for everyone's health.
And then, one day, you smoked your last cigarette — with all the ceremony a last cigarette deserves — only to realise it was merely your first last cigarette.
Self-help and contraband
After nearly four decades of carefree sophistication and half a dozen half-hearted attempts at using my willpower, I ordered Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking. The front cover boasts that more than 15-million copies have been sold since 1985, and the back cover promises that after reading the book, I will never touch a cigarette again. There are also endorsements by two famous people whom I admire for other reasons.
Anjelica Huston: “It achieved for me what I didn't think was possible — to get rid of a 30-year long habit literally overnight. It was nothing short of a miracle."
Sir Anthony Hopkins: “I was instantly freed from my addiction. Not only did I find it easy to persevere, but I enjoyed it immensely."
What do you know? I opened my first self-help book with great anticipation and quickly closed it again. The condescending tone and shameless peddling from the first sentence caused me to put it aside and forget about it for the next five years.
Therefore, I was still a smoker when tobacco sales were suspended in South Africa in March 2020, initially for three weeks. As soon as the three-week supply ran out, the smoking trade ban was extended and lasted several months. I was not adept at smuggling, and the first time I deliberately and slowly drove past Fish Hoek station, I went home empty-handed. R200 for a packet of Chicago — are you crazy?
What eventually made it easier to pay an arm and a leg for a packet of contraband cigarettes bought under the counter was that it was not only prices that skyrocketed: the intrinsic value of cigarettes also went into orbit the moment we were deprived of them. After all, we are taught about the relative value of cigarettes from an early age — like when a thoughtful cigarette is placed between the lips of a seriously wounded soldier in a war movie, or when a convict is granted one last smoke by his executioner.
Forget about willpower
Yes, I'm quoting Allen Carr here.
When I glanced over a bookshelf during a recent blue Monday, his banal book was waiting for me between E.L. Doctorow's World's Fair and Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves.
In the three-and-a-half weeks since I started reading grudgingly and little by little, I have progressed to page 145 — only 34 pages before the chapter titled “The Final Cigarette". I'm not going to read that far.
In the same clumsy style and condescending tone that previously offended me so much, for chapter after chapter Carr repeats several statements, some of which may sound questionable to many smokers:
Nobody enjoys smoking. Any “pleasure" you experience when you light a cigarette is simply due to the satisfaction of your craving for nicotine. The longer the wait between cigarettes, the more “enjoyable" the next cigarette becomes. Not only are you addicted to nicotine, you've allowed marketers, other smokers and yourself to cajole you. Among other things, you believe that a cigarette makes you feel calmer in stressful situations, while your addiction actually forces you to smoke in order to experience the same state of mind as a non-smoker.
Smokers hear from every quarter that quitting smoking is very difficult and that they will suffer a lot in the process. They feel sad in advance that certain pleasures will never be available to them again. This fear causes them to continue smoking. The reason why willpower almost never works is because it is based on the assumption that you are giving up something of value to you, whereas you are actually being freed from a burden.
And so on.
The last cigarette
The book insists that the reader should keep smoking until the last chapter, when you will light your last cigarette with a grand gesture. The principle being that the hard work to free yourself from smoking will be behind you by the end of the book. Therefore, you are allowed to continue smoking while quitting, rather than relying on willpower, meaning the hard work starts only after you get rid of your crutch.
By last weekend, this requirement unexpectedly became a problem. There were still quite a few miserable chapters ahead and I simply didn't feel like smoking any more. Sunday passed completely smoke free, and I imagined that I would resume smoking on Monday as I completed the last few chapters.
But by the time I turned off the light on Monday night, I folded the top corner of page 145. The last 34 pages — and the last cigarette — would have to wait until the next morning.
And when Tuesday dawned, I put the book back on the shelf, this time between a field guide on mushrooms and Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
Apparently the last cigarette had already been smoked, and I hadn't even greeted it properly.
As Anjelica Huston said, it's nothing less than a miracle.
* Vrye Weekblad published this article in Afrikaans in April 2021.
♦ VWB ♦
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