Books, Miscellaneous

Do you mind if I smoke? I don’t care if you burn

Smokers in France are fuming. There is a real prospect that Gauloises and Gitanes, those quintessentially French cigarettes, will soon be banned on the grounds that they are simply too cool. They have been a key part of the French identity since 1910, the very essence of France. How could the great years of the post-war Left Bank cultural explosion have occurred without them? If the soundtrack was jazz and the philosophy existentialism, then the air belonged to Gauloises. Albert Camus was never photographed without one. Serge Gainsbourg smoked five packets of filterless throat-stripping Gitanes Blondes a day. French resistance fighters drew from their strength, smoking them as a deep act of patriotism. Jean-Paul Belmondo put out a tab only to light another immediately whilst on the run from les flics. What the hell is going on?

A new public health law could see them banned for being too trendy. Le Figaro reports that the French Minister of Health, Marisol Touraine, has these brands in her sights. She asserts that they will fall foul of a soon to be implemented European directive that states tobacco products “must not include any element that contributes to the promotion of tobacco or give an erroneous impression of certain characteristics.” In other words because Gauloises and Gitanes rely on their potent and positive cultural associations they will be caught by the restriction.

Have we stumbled upon the first benefit of Brexit? Parisian philosophers and poets may soon be spotted visiting tobacconists across the south of England.

Smoking can save your life. Bertrand Russell, a pipe smoker, was flying in an airplane that crashed into a Norwegian fjord. Every person in the non-smoking section of the plane drowned whilst all the smokers survived. But I grant you this is unlikely to be a winning argument with the French Minister for Health.

How about this instead?

  • There has been a significant reduction in levels of smoking.
  • There has been a significant increase in cancer rates (those born after 1930 had a 1 in 3 chance of getting cancer and those born after 1960 a 1 in 2 chance)

This is because according to Cancer Research UK age is the biggest factor in determining cancer rates. As people live longer, their chance of getting cancer increase dramatically. One of the reasons we are living longer is that we live healthier lifestyles, for example the giving up of smoking. The healthier we get, the longer we live, the more chance we have of getting cancer. It is enough to make anyone want to light up. If a Government was intent on reducing the rate, then one way would be to kill everybody when they attained the age of 50.

I am not a smoker myself. This post is not written to challenge the established scientific fact that there is an increase in the risk of lung cancer for those who smoke. However there does seem to be some muddled thinking about this topic. I suggest that the current vogue for banning smoking is driven more by our cultural-wide fear of death than anything else. Rather than yet more banning, a more enlightened philosophical attitude to death could be attempted.

I find it impossible to complete a post without mentioning a literary text. So let’s briefly consider the novel Zeno’s Conscience by Joyce’s Trieste friend Italo Svevo. Zeno is addicted to smoking and tries in vain to give it up; in fact he is trapped as he can only give up smoking while not thinking of giving up smoking. He goes at one point to his doctor to obtain a certificate proving he is mentally well. When his father tells Zeno he thinks his son is mad, Zeno triumphantly produces a certificate from the doctor attesting to his sanity. His father replies in a sad voice and with tears in his eyes “then you really are mad”. Svevo had an entrenched smoking habit that he repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to conquer.

Camus and Gainsbourg and Svevo all died young, but not from cancer. Keith Richards is still alive.


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