God hates fags.  But New Labour are a little more equivocal.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has defended the plans for a partial ban on smoking in public places in England.

Critics and health experts have said plans to exempt private clubs and non-food pubs from the ban are bad for health and will prove “unworkable”.

OK, full disclosure. As mentioned in a recent comments box, I am a living (still!) breathing (just!) example of that great oxymoron, the “social smoker”.

On average – and obviously this varies considerably, in both directions – I get through about 20 cigarettes a week. Most days, I don’t smoke at all. Roughly once a week, on a Wednesday or a Thursday evening, I’ll meet up with my going-out buddies in a city centre pub. As almost all of them are smokers (funny how we all stick together), and as K almost never joins us (we’ve always maintained slightly separate social lives, even if there is a large overlap), I will invariably join in and light up.

During these evenings, I will generally chuff my way through about one fag every 20-25 minutes. The later I stay out, the more frequent this gets. So we’re talking around 10-12 fags in a single night. I think of this as getting in touch with my inner laboratory beagle.

Other than that, I usually smoke three or four in the cottage on Friday nights: late on, after K has gone to bed, and before I’ve started to feel tired. It’s my little weekly treat. The cottage is well ventilated, so there’s virtually no residual stink on Saturday mornings.

I also smoke at gigs; we’re talking maybe four or five in the course of the evening. Well, one has to maintain one’s Rock and Roll credibility somehow. Goes with the territory, doesn’t it?

I never smoke during the daytime, and never feel the slightest urge; the thought of having to carry the residual taste in my mouth for the rest of the day is enough to put me right off the idea.

I never smoke without alcohol in front of me, except for a single cig when I’m walking down to the pub on my own.

If the majority of people I’m with are non-smokers, then I won’t smoke (unless I’m very drunk). I don’t smoke inside people’s houses, or in restaurants.

In summary, I bend with the wind. If the opportunity presents itself, and if there’s no-one around to express disapproval, then I’ll succumb to temptation. If I’m going to piss people off, then I’ll refrain.

Am I addicted? The word feels too extreme.

Do I have a habit? Yes, I do.

Do I enjoy smoking? Yes and no. There are conflicting feelings.

I like reaching into the packet, putting the fag in my mouth, lighting it, and taking the first drag. That’s the best bit.

I hate the effect that the first fag of the day has on my body: dizzy head, fractured brain, heartbeat up, clenched butt, sweaty feet. That’s the worst bit. But it goes away if you smoke a couple more.

I enjoy the feeling of participating in a shared ritual with other happy, smiling, carefree smokers. That’s when I like smoking most of all.

I also like the “private late night treat” feeling which I get on Fridays; but this is invariably accompanied by a little shudder of guilt and shame, which I can’t quite shrug off.

I hate climbing into bed next to K, and knowing that I haven’t got rid of the smell (even if I’ve just taken a shower), and having to turn away from him so as not to envelop him with my fumes. That’s when I feel the most ashamed.

I hate the stink on my fingers and clothes, and the taste in my mouth the next day.

Would I like to stop? I have stopped, several times. But as I’ve never been a daily smoker, I’ve never felt a particular danger in starting again. I always like to feel that I can take them or leave them. After all, I’m not a Smoker with a Capital S. Am I?

I’m avoiding the question. Would I like to stop? Yes, eventually. But it never feels like a matter of urgency. I only started smoking ten years ago, and there have been extended periods during that time when I’ve smoked less, or none at all. I’ve certainly never smoked more. Therefore, when considering the health risks, I like to think that I’m still inside the safety zone. If there’s a fixed lifetime quota for the number of fags that one can ingest without incurring any significant danger, then surely I’m well within it. Aren’t I?

So, what is this mystical lifetime quota? I have no idea.

Has anyone close to me ever suffered through a smoking-related disease? Not so far as I am aware.

Besides, I’m invincible.

OK, I’d like to stop. But, you see, I was rather counting on the government to force my hand for me. By removing the opportunity, they would have removed the temptation. They’ve done it in Ireland. They’re doing it in Scotland. I simply assumed that England and Wales wouldn’t be far behind. After all, this hasn’t exactly been the most liberal of governments in recent years, has it? Nanny state? Bring it on!

And so, even though I’m a “social smoker”, I feel thoroughly let down and proper pissed off. My Tony, my Tony, why hast thou forsaken me?

As to the reasons for the fudge, my inner conspiracy theorist is juggling three possibilities.

1. New Labour is still in hock to the tobacco industry. Unlikely, in this day and age – Big Tobacco must surely have accepted its pariah status by now. Besides, it still has other, larger, less informed markets to conquer.

2. New Labour are scared of losing the tax revenue. Quite plausible. How else will they be able to balance the books, without the billions pouring in from the nation’s chuffers? When the Naional Lottery was introduced, lofty metropolitan commentators were quick to deem it a “tax on stupidity”. Wrong target, fellows.

3. New Labour are scared of alienating its lower income constituency. Christ, they’ve got to do something popular with the working classes, right? Plausible but silly, as the vast majority of middle class floating voters would appear to be passionately in favour of an outright ban in all enclosed public spaces.

And that’s the other bit that rankles with me. Have you noticed the sheer venom with which smokers are being denounced nowadays? Sure, they (OK OK, we) don’t have an even halfway plausible argument to call our own. Sure, we’re selfish, and we stink, and we make your clothes smell awful in the morning. But nevertheless, there’s a creeping edge to a lot of the recent debate which disturbs me. Self-righteousness is never a good look – and don’t give me that “it’s for your own good” claptrap, either. Society likes its easy scapegoats. Thin end of the wedge. There are worse crimes: alcohol-related violence, exhaust fumes… oh, but I’m not even going to go down that route.

Somewhere in the last decade – maybe even in the last five years – we’ve reached a tipping point. Thirty or forty years ago, the whole country smelt of cigarette smoke – so much so, that we barely even noticed it. (Besides, with the comparative levels of polluted air and questionable personal hygiene, perhaps the fag fug smokescreen was doing us all a favour, shielding us from even nastier smells.) Now, the air is clearing. As we lift our noses to the fresher, cleaner atmosphere, those few lingering traces of fag smoke suddenly strike us anew. What we barely used to notice, we now find intolerable.

And so, the hour has come.

But not just yet, it would seem.

Bugger. That only leaves me with will power and personal responsibility.

Basically, I’m f**ked, aren’t I?

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