Attitudes towards smoking have hardened considerably in recent years, particularly around children. Things were much different during my childhood though.
I quit smoking almost twenty years ago. The day came just after the Budget, when I told myself that enough was enough. I chose to go cold turkey and I am happy to report that I succeeded. The reason for this determined effort was my outrage at the price of a packet of ten cigarettes going up to £1.30. I couldn’t live with myself if I had to pay today’s prices.
I took up smoking when I was fifteen. This was an inevitable progression when you consider the starring role cigarettes had played in my life until then. Children today are protected from the evils of tobacco with measures such as age restrictions, advertising bans and graphic images of what can, and will happen should you be foolhardy enough to take up the habit. More recently, a new ruling states that tobacco products must be stored behind screens in supermarkets. Efforts to keep children off the cigs were not always so stringent.
I remember from a very early age going to the corner shop at the top of our street for cigarettes for my mother. She smoked Player’s (which we pronounced ‘plares’), and I would often be dispatched to get her five, or ten, but never twenty. I remember studying the face of the sailor on the packet as I walked home. According to his cap, he was from the good ship Hero, but I didn’t like him because he had a beard. There was no security check at the shop; none of this ‘no ID, no sale’ protection for us. I was six-years-old, and I could obtain cigarettes with no more fuss than had I been buying a finger of fudge. I have to say, however, that the shopkeeper was a friend, and my mother was well known to her.
My mother did not forego tobacco while she carried me or my brothers, as smoking during pregnancy wasn’t seen as socially unacceptable back then. I remember watching her putting socks onto my infant brother with a lit cigarette hanging from her mouth. Of course we were told that smoking was bad for our health, but the message wasn’t hammered home with any force.
Cigarette advertising on TV was allowed in those days, and smoking was glamourized down to the butt on the small screen. Catchy jingles, like Never go without a Capstan, got into the minds of the nation’s smokers, and slogans like You’re never alone with a Strand reinforced the generally held belief that smoking was a sophisticated habit. Watching my grandma trying to knit with a dog-end in her mouth, squinting and grimacing as the rising smoke stung her eyes, showed me the other side of that particular coin.
In the USA, children were included in the target audience when The Flintstones, no less, appeared in a series of commercials for a popular cigarette brand. The modern-day equivalent of this would perhaps see Spongebob Squarepants puffing away on an underwater ciggie, and waxing lyrical about flavour. Another TV ad for cigarettes advised us to smoke their brand ‘for your throat’s sake’, while yet another informed us that their cigarettes were smoked by more doctors than any other brand on the market. Now there’s an endorsement.
Even before I embarked on my first cig-buying expedition, I had familiarised myself with the more tactile aspects of smoking. For my infant lips and fingers there were sweet cigarettes which came in brightly coloured boxes, often emblazoned with popular cartoon characters of the day to tempt young eyes. They came in push-up packs just like cigarettes, and they had pink tips for that ready-lit effect. My friends and I would hold them between our fingers like real cigarettes, and pretend to puff on them and flamboyantly flick off ash, before sucking the stick to a point. These counterfeit coffin-nails posed more of a threat to our teeth than our lungs, but they were very popular.
After a hard morning learning the seven-times-table, little Johnny is ready for his playtime sweet cigarette. He leans against a wall and pulls a packet of Popeye brand from the pocket of his shorts. Young Emily, the apple of Johnny’s eye, passes, and Johnny offers her a Popeye, holding the open pack in front of her. Emily snubs Johnny. “No thank you,” she says, “I prefer these,” at which she produces a packet of Superman from her satchel.
Who among us did not relive that scene with real cigarettes in later life?
As we got older, from about seven onwards, we moved up to more realistic sweet cigarettes. These were made of chocolate, and wrapped in what we were told was edible paper. They came in soft packs just like real cigarettes, and each had a genuine paper seal that had to be broken to get at the contents. The names and pack designs were often similar to existing brands, but there were also those that dropped any pretence and were exact copies of genuine packs. This less than subtle ploy allowed children to choose their preferred brands before they even started smoking.
If cigarettes weren’t your thing, there was always Spanish Gold sweet tobacco. This was shredded coconut flavoured candy that came in packs like regular hand-rolling tobacco. I have an unpleasant memory of being violently sick at the cinema after eating this tobacco-conut while waiting for a Sinbad film to start. I suspect to this day that I was actually munching on my dad’s Old Holborn, which I picked up by mistake when the lights went down.
Finally, at Christmas, I was given the lodestar that would guide me towards Planet Nicotine: a chocolate smokers’ kit. This was a brown box with a clear cellophane front panel on the lid, behind which sat foil-wrapped cigarettes, pipe, cigar and even a book of matches, all made from a particularly delicious brand of chocolate. I was sold, and it was only a matter of time before I took up smoking for real.
Many of these sweet tobacco products are still available, but they do not occupy prominent positions in almost every shop like they did when I was young. Those sweet cigarettes in the coloured boxes are now called candy sticks, and I do not know if they still come with a pink tip.
So smoking played a big part in my upbringing; I bought cigarettes for my mother as a child, I watched countless adverts for tobacco products on television, and ate my own weight in sweet cigarettes. By the time I reached adolescence, I was, to misquote Jaggers in Great Expectations, “qualified in all ways for the tobacconist”. Yet, when I took to smoking the real thing, my parents were enraged, and I had to indulge in my new habit secretly, away from their gaze.
One lesson we learn as we grow up is that the world can sometimes be a topsy-turvy place.