We wake up, we go out, smoke a fag, put it out


I’m a smoker.

I have been since my early teens. Smoking and me were made for each other. I love the taste. I love the smell. I love the sophistication that I feel with a fag between my fingers. Each cigarette is something I look forward to, enjoy lighting, enjoy drawing the fumes into my asthmatic lungs and enjoy stubbing out at the end. Smoking and me were made for each other. When I’m not smoking a cigarette, something is missing from my hand.

I’m an anti-smoker.

I don’t like other people’s smoke. As much as I would really enjoy a ciggy with a pint, I’d rather not share my pint with other people’s smoke. I love a cigarette between courses of food but don’t want someone smoking during my meal. A very long train journey is a nightmare for me without the gaspers. I’d rather not share a carriage with a single person puffing on a fag – let alone sit in a (now long forgotten) smoking carriage.

Perhaps that lets me make the following comment about current government policy on cigarettes.

Cigarettes are expensive. This is A Good Thing. The cost deters people from starting and makes the insane cost of nicotine replacement therapy seem reasonable. (Yes, a full weekly course of NRT costs less than a week of cigs, but smokers discount the cost of the daily packet as if it was background voices and inflate the cost of NRT because it seems so upfront).

The latest wheeze (ho ho) is to put cigarettes out of sight. You go to buy them and they’re not there. The shop assistant unlocks a door, fishes them out and sells them to you blind.

I have my preferred brand – Silk Cut Silver, if you must know. It’s low tar and low nicotine. Of course this is worse than not smoking at all, and I agree it it’s probably no better than smoking Capstan Full Strength. But as I queue at the kiosk, if they don’t have my brand, what do I do? Write off the queue time or buy something else? I’m human. I’ll buy something else. And it’ll be stronger. So for the next 24-48 hours, I’ll be smoking something that tastes stronger, has higher tar and has higher nicotine. That’ll help when the day comes to give up.

But the worst part of this stupid idea is that it makes the price of fags completely discountable. Yes, us smokers will choose by price to a degree, despite what I said above. But if prices continue to rise above inflation, the motivation for stopping increases. Poorer smokers – and I’ve been a poor smoker, even whilst in the arms of the welfare state – will buy a packet of 10 and eke them out when the price gets too much. Eventually, they’ll turn to their GP and ask to be enrolled on the humiliation-and-hectoring course the NHS does free to help you quit (that would *so* not work for me – the words “who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” would bubble up uncontrollably).

What has happened here is that the price of cigarettes has now been hidden. Not the packets, not the subtle advertising, not the craving – just the price. As the cupboard doors appear over the fags, so the connection between price and the cost of smoking disappear. Already WHSmith do this – their railway station outlets put a £1 premium on the cost of 20 fags. The shop assistants usually warn you. “They’re £8.10 here and there’s a real shop down the street”. When they don’t warn you, you’re faced with paying £8.10 there and then. And you do, because you’ve queued and because you’re gasping and because you don’t want to shop elsewhere and you don’t want to annoy the shoppie… So you pay.

And so it will be when all the cigarettes are covered up. The supermarket hegemony will jack the prices because you can’t see them. The local shops will undercut them, but only by a few pence. The NHS’s major weapon against smoking, the control of the price, will be broken and the rewards will be taken by the large retailers and the tobacco companies who are about to get a cigarette-based bonanza of cash.

And the losers? Well, the slow but steady rise in the cost of fags has benefited the NHS via the Treasury for 30 or more years. It has also pealed off the more casual smoker who choses to give up on Budget Day. The forthcoming free-for-all in prices will benefit neither. Smokers will be quickly immunised to the prices. But the retailers and the tobacco companies will be minting it.

The only loser will be the NHS. But then we’re under a Liberal-Conservative government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich, that believes that the NHS is for losers only anyway. So it hardly matters.