Smoking is bad. This is well known. No caring parent would want his children to start smoking. Smoking is bad for the health; it causes a stink; it stains; it costs the nation a fortune in lost personnel and hospital beds; it is antisocial. I do not smoke, and I hate the habit. I find the smell of side-smoke foul, and on occasion have found myself with stinging eyes, being over-whelmed by noxious clouds. I once went to see a friend at a gig she was playing in a pub. The pub was so smoky that I remember coming to the genuine conclusion that I would sooner sit in a pool of someone else’s urine that endure the smoke that was there. I went home coughing.
Given the above, you may wonder why I say, “Let the children smoke”. Well, people suffer from smoking not because some people smoke the occasional tab, but because many people smoke several times a day. Adults form the habit of smoking, and they continue it because they are chemically addicted to nicotine. People seldom start smoking in adulthood. The typical long-term smoker is someone who started young, and the young are not born chemically addicted to nicotine. The best way to combat smoking is not to work on adults, but on children.
The importance to long term smoking of children’s attitudes has long been recognised, and a small industry has sprung up to feed on this idea. There are quite a few people who make their living from going round schools, and demonstrating to children the hazards of smoking in a variety of ways, all doubtless well-intentioned. These people get not insubstantial government funding to spread the message to children that smoking is very bad for them.
The snag is, of course, that no children have the ability to imagine themselves at the age of sixty, dying of lung cancer. What matters is the here and now. They just don’t care what might happen in several decades' time. Old people are an alien species, who live in a laughably uncool world. Several studies have been made of the effectiveness of anti-smoking education, and all of them have inevitably concluded the same thing: that the more children are told not to smoke, the more likely they are to smoke. This education is counter-productive. In response to these studies, those who stand to lose their jobs over the implications of them point out that the studies sometimes show that the more intensively educated a child is on the perils of the weed, the more likely he is never to try a single puff. Such children are, I would argue, irrelevant. We should not be concerned that a child might one day smoke one cigarette. Cigarettes are not that deadly. Indeed, forcing a child to smoke a whole cigarette for the first time, can be very a good aversion technique. A person’s first cigarette is usually tough going. What matters is that some children become habitual smokers.
I well remember being taken by my English teacher along with the rest of my class to see Children of a Lesser God at a theatre in the centre of London. When the interval came, I was the last to leave my seat, and, used to going to the theatre, I thought I would go to the bar for a shandy. I was fourteen. To go to the bar involved walking up a long staircase. Leaning against the walls either side of this staircase were my school peers. I walked up the stairs, looking left and right, thinking, “Good Lord, he smokes. Great Scott, she smokes. Holy cats, he smokes. Blinking flip, they smoke. Heavens to Betsy, she smokes… [etcetera]”. I went to the bar, and had my shandy, which I suspect I enjoyed more than many of those lining the stairs enjoyed their cigarettes. Years later, I thought back to the incident, and realised that I was the only person who managed to run that gauntlet. All my peers, seeing the others smoking, had yielded to the ridiculous notion which said in their heads, “Oh heck, the others are all smoking. If I don’t smoke where they can see me, they will think that I’m childish and not cool.” You may think that I am boasting that I was strong enough to resist this notion. Actually, I needed no strength, since the notion never occurred to me. This may be the final proof that I am not quite the paragon of normality which I had always taken myself to be.
Most of the children on that staircase were fifteen. The law states that such youngsters cannot legally buy cigarettes. Smoking is an adult thing. By this method, the law also says to children that by smoking they will make themselves appear more adult, and there is little a teenager wants more than to appear more grown up. Both adults and children are legally allowed to drop heavy objects on their feet, but oddly this does not make the practice popular. If dropping heavy objects onto ones feet were restricted to adults, then children would definitely give it a go. Smoking is so foul, so flagrantly stupid, so costly, and the first cigarette so poisonous, that it is quite analogous to dropping bricks onto toes.
When I was sixteen, I was sent down for a two-year stretch at a boarding school. At this school, smoking was, of course, against the rules. The parents would expect it. Consequently, many of the children smoked. They didn’t do this openly, because they would be caught and punished, so they disappeared to one of a few haunts about the school grounds, and smoked there. By this method, they became members of an exclusive club, and met their smoking friends a few times a day, in their private dens in the bushes. Whereas smoking openly would have been anti-social, the illegality of smoking turned it into something social to do. Since the rules said that smoking was punishable, to smoke became both daring and rebellious, and therefore cool. If a teacher wanted to catch some smokers, he didn’t have to go to much trouble. The smoking kids didn’t take great precautions against capture. To do so wouldn’t have been cool. The only way to gain kudos from being a smoker was for other people to know about it, and being caught and punished was excellent publicity.
If there is a danger, people want something done about it. They feel happier that something is being done, even if that thing is demonstrably ineffective. Air-traffic control is a good example. At air-ports, it is necessary to direct air-traffic to the correct runways, and to make sure that two aeroplanes don’t try to land on the same runway at once. However, air-traffic control does not end at the airport, nor even near it. For the entirety of the journey, even across an ocean, aircraft are monitored, and directed down air-corridors, so that they all miss each other safely. I haven’t done the calculations myself, but it is reckoned by many that this air-traffic control causes more accidents than it prevents. There is an awful lot of air above us, and the chances of two aircraft filling the same bit of it at the same time by coincidence is very slight indeed. Aircraft also have radar of their own, and are piloted by pilots equipped with eyes and reflexes. A pilot trusting the directions of an air-traffic controller, can switch off mentally, and be less good at taking independent avoiding action. Since aeroplanes are directed down long narrow corridors of air, any mistake as to which corridor they should be in is likely to direct them into, rather than out of, the path of another ‘plane. If aeroplanes were to fly about at random, they would be less likely to collide. Nevertheless, politicians demand that something be done about mid-ocean collision risk, and a lot of time and money is spent accordingly, and, once in a blue moon, some people die because of it.
We must let go. We must legalise smoking for children. Yes, we don’t want children to smoke, but the reason they smoke is that they are not allowed to. Yes, some children will use the lax law to smoke, and this will be terrible to witness, but the total number of people who grow up to become smokers will be far lower, and so this will be good. We will every now and then see an eight year-old on a street corner, smoking, and people will write to their members of parliament, demanding that something be done. What we won’t notice, is that the haunts of the millions of child smokers, behind bike-sheds, in local woods, in attics, in abandoned warehouses, will be empty.