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Photo: Bill Brandt, 1932


22 January 2023

Filthy or Gorgeous: The shame of smoking and finding the desire to give it up


In a world obsessed with health and wellness, I’m ashamed to admit that I enjoy smoking.


I love it for the opposite reason that people love ultra-marathons: it's all short term pleasure and long term pain. Despite the social nature of it - imagine ten people all huddled under an umbrella in the pouring rain outside a party - the moments with a cigarette that I have enjoyed both the most and the least, are when I am by myself. To confess to a secret, I get the sense that even now (aged twenty-two) I am breaking some kind of rule in a mild, incredibly petty and yet manifestly satisfying way. Beyond that, smoking has become a self-soothing habit. The sensory nature of rolling a cigarette, the way it feels in my hand as I press it between my lips, the warm flicker of a flame on the end of my nose as I light it. The pure physicality feels like a moment of calm away from the anxieties of everyday life. 


Recently, however, as my friends and family members have started to quit smoking, swapping out for vapes and other vices, my desire to go and stand huddled in the cold for a cigarette has become an isolating one. The ‘cool girl’ allure that drew me in has faded away and the act of having a cigarette alone has become more frequent and, in a complex way, shameful. I am more than aware that it's bad for my health (thank you Mrs. Riddle from Year 6 PSHE). I am, however, more conscious of the fact that lots of important people in my life are not so keen on it. The combination of these things means that in the last few months smoking has become more and more like a guilt riddled crutch than a pleasure. 


I have a lot of friends who have one cigarette on a night out and then won’t touch one for months. This has never been my forte. Just as with any habit - brushing your teeth in the morning or eating chocolate after dinner - I find the urge to smoke is triggered by other unrelated actions. This could be anything from getting in the drivers side of the car to finishing a meal or having a glass of alcohol. Despite the fact that I know it’s bad for me, the intensity of want for that instant gratification wins out over any reasonable argument I make myself. Thankfully I’m not alone in my internal conflict. My inability to ‘just stop smoking’ which seems inexplicable to so many friends is summarised in my favourite poem: ‘Giving Up Smoking’. Concise, funny and oh-so-relatable, it's pretty much a perfect dance between adoration and addiction. 


Giving Up Smoking: 


There's not a Shakespeare sonnet

Or a Beethoven quartet

That's easier to like than you

Or harder to forget.


You think that sounds extravagant?

I haven't finished yet —

I like you more than I would like

To have a cigarette.

-       Wendy Cope


Since I discovered it, Wendy Cope’s poem has become the gold standard measure of how much I like someone in the earliest stages of a crush, but it also perfectly illustrates what it feels like when you are trying to break a bad habit. Having tried to give up smoking before, I can confirm that the longing for a cigarette when you’re quitting and craving for a person who you are falling in love with are strikingly similar feelings. The intense desire to have that thing - a fragment of attention, a drink, a cigarette - with absolutely nothing stopping you from getting it, is a dangerous combination. 


So I guess it is actually a very good thing that slowly but surely the appeal of smoking is souring. It is perhaps a sign of maturity and much more balanced mental health that I no longer wish to do myself harm. And really that’s the problem. I may love smoking but I also really like being alive. Unfortunately the two are pretty incompatible eventually. It's as simple as that. As one of my best friends said to me when asking if I would ever quit: ‘I quite like you and I don’t want you to die.’ 


On New Years Eve this year, I drunkenly told that same friend (waving my slightly squashed Marlboro Gold around for emphasis) that smoking was a habit of my past, I would from now on only do it for fun with friends. Twelve hours later, cringing slightly at my drunken antics as they were related back to me, my mid-afternoon breakfast consisted of a black coffee, beans on toast, and a cigarette. I’d love to promise here that 2023 is going to be the year I quit smoking for good and maybe that will be the case. The truth is that the idea of quitting without ever smoking again scares me beyond belief. Underneath that fear, however, the melancholy feeling is creeping in that it might be time to break the habit and start saving the cigarettes for moments other than breakfast. 



Cope, Wendy. ‘Giving Up Smoking.’ Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. Faber & Faber. 2010.

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