Standing up for lighting up

I don’t know whether I miss smoking. But I certainly miss being a smoker. And, even more, I miss other smokers. Can e-smoking offer the same camaraderie?

The tell-tale plume of smoke or the glow of a cigarette tip across a crowded room was an infallible way to spot the more interesting, original and imaginative people at a party. Simply by lighting up yourself, you were tacitly admitted to a conversation without any need for introduction – it was the most welcoming tribe.

Smokers instantly bonded with other smokers, regardless of any social, cultural, geographical or political barriers. You could also lend and borrow cigarettes or share matches and lighters – each a tiny ritual of exchange which created instant affinity.

There was another reason why smokers were drawn to each other. Quite simply the nature and quality of conversation among smokers is always markedly better than among non-smokers. The act of smoking allows for moments of silence. When you’re inhaling, exhaling or emptying or refilling a pipe, you have permission to stare into space or to lose yourself in introspection without looking rude. Hence smokers at parties need not struggle to keep the conversation going with banal pleasantries.

The Greeks used to be heroic smokers but, since the smoking ban, they haven’t been doing nearly so well

But were “other smokers” valuable to us in more ways than their conversation? Einstein, a life-member of the Montreal Pipe Smokers Club, once said: “Smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement of human affairs.” Bertrand Russell, when asked what had been his life’s greatest pleasure, unhesitatingly replied: “Smoking tobacco.” Bach wrote an Aria, So oft ich Meine Tobackspfeife, as an ode to the joys of pipe smoking. Is it impossible that nicotine is creatively valuable?

From Bach to Beethoven, from Björn & Benny to Brian Wilson, it is hard to identify a composer or songwriter of any worth who was a non-smoker. Among the ranks of great writers and poets, non-smokers are few – even John Milton lit up. Perhaps tobacco makes possible those sustained bouts of abstract thought which are essential to science and the arts.

I suspect somewhere in the world there is now, in a smokeless, sterile meeting room, a genius who knows how to solve the economic crisis. But he (or she) isn’t solving it. He is busy listening to the incessant drivel of non-smokers, while wishing he could just sneak out for a quick smoke.

Even for us ordinary mortals, the act of inhaling nicotine offers a level of welcome detachment that is increasingly hard to achieve in this always connected world of BlackBerries and smartphones. It feeds the unconscious mind and restores it to its proper prominence.

It may be economically valuable, too. Unlike almost every other drug, bar caffeine, you can enjoy nicotine while working. It’s the addiction of choice for the industrious person. Look at the Chinese. The Greeks used to be heroic smokers and, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but since the smoking ban, they haven’t been doing nearly so well.

A proper cost-benefit analysis of nicotine, rather than the current Manichaean demonisation of the drug, is long overdue. And, if doctors are now most worried about the crisis of obesity, maybe what the world needs is a really reliable appetite suppressant. Er, like nicotine?

At present people view new forms of nicotine delivery, such as e-cigarettes, as a necessary evil – a kind of damage-limitation exercise – a “well, if you really must”. I’m not sure this inspired invention – which, like most great inventions, is the product of a smoker – might not be much more valuable than that. Perhaps the e-cigarette should not merely be tolerated, it should be welcomed.