Back in 1980, a friend of mine went to France for three weeks to pick grapes. She returned a year and a half later after having travelled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.
On Friday nights she would come over to visit me and we would play Scrabble and cribbage for hours on end while drinking wine and coffee.
Those are good memories.
One night as we were opening a third bottle of wine, my friend, whom I had never seen smoking, took out of her purse a pack of Egyptian cigarettes which she had brought back from her travels, and lit up a cigarette. I was not a smoker, however for fun I asked her to give me one. I was 25 years old and this was my first smoking experience. I enjoyed it so much that a month later I was smoking a pack a day.
I like the smell and the taste of tobacco. It reminds me of my grandfather who smoked Canadian tobacco that he purchased from farmers. It reminds me of my father, who before my parents’ divorce, when I was a child, would send me to the store to buy Sportsman cigarettes for him.
I like the gestures that come with smoking: opening a pack, taking a cigarette out, lighting it up while protecting the flame of the lighter or the match from the wind, holding a cigarette between my fingers, feeling the cigarette dangling from my lips, deeply breathing in the smoke and enjoying the taste of tobacco.
These feelings are irreplaceable.
At university, I had a non-smoking girlfriend who, when she woke up before me in the morning, would light one of my cigarettes and place it between my lips to awaken me. This is one of the most sensual memories of my youth.
Everybody smoked back then; it was the quintessential social activity. We shared cigarettes to get acquainted, to make a conversation last, to prolong an evening, to muster up courage at work. And drinking coffee or alcohol without smoking is just not the same thing.
In Jim Jarmusch’s excellent movie, Coffee and Cigarettes, Tom Waits manages to convince Iggy Pop that the beauty of quitting is that then you can have a cigarette, because you quit...
Everything is different now. First, governments implemented regulations to make cigarette packages less attractive. Then, they raised the price of tobacco products by applying whopping regressive taxes that sparked contraband and created a new underground cigarette manufacturing industry.
At work, employees were first relegated to smoking in badly ventilated rooms, then forced to smoke outside 30 feet away from the doors. The most basic principles of hospitality and health were ignored. Patrons of bars and restaurants would be subjected to the same predicament a few years later.
Which is the biggest threat? Catching cancer after decades of smoking or catching pneumonia after a few days or weeks of smoking outside in -30 temperatures?
To spare myself from having to smoke outside during the harsh Canadian winter, I decided to try switching to electronic cigarettes.
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, were patented in the United States in the early 1960’s. At that time, the negative effects of smoking were not generally recognized so the product was a marketing failure.
An e-cig is about the same size and the same weight as a pen. Its components are an LED light to indicate when it is activated, a battery with the relevant electronic circuitry, a vaporizer and a cartridge containing a liquid that produces the taste and mist.
E-cigs are activated by inhaling from a hole at the end of the cartridge containing a liquid after it is screwed to the rest of the contraption.
This liquid contains propylene glycol or glycerin. These chemicals are often found in atomizers used to produce relief from asthma. It also contains food additives or nicotine although the importing of nicotine-based e-cigs is not authorized in Canada. Otherwise, it is fairly easy to find non-nicotine e-cigs.
I spent 10 dollars for a food additive-based e-cig that was supposed to provide me with the same enjoyment I would get from smoking two packs of regular cigarettes.
Unfortunately it was not to be.
While this e-cig gave me the impression that I was smoking “for real”, I was disappointed by the taste and smell of the cigarette. The device produces a sweet, herbal odour and taste that reminded me somewhat of the mixture hookah pipe smokers use: you know, the herbal stuff that tastes like apples or jasmine. I was never fond of flavoured tobacco; I prefer a strong bitter taste.
I also found the weight and size of the e-cig uncomfortable. It is impossible to let the cigarette hang from your lips because it is too heavy. Its length makes it awkward to handle.
Finally, the electronic cigarette produces a “smoke” that is really only a mist. It results from the evaporation of the liquid from the heated cartridge. In public, that mist is conspicuous and it might annoy oversensitive non-smokers or former smokers.
Since we are constantly bombarded with anti-smoking messages, it is hard not to be aware of the negative effects of this habit on the heart and the lungs. However, I am of those who believe that there are two sides to every coin. To every Romulus there is a Remus; to each Cain there is an Abel. If smoking is still popular despite the huge deployment of efforts to eradicate it, tobacco must have some benefits, benefits strong enough to resist advertising campaigns heavily subsidized by governments, the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry.
Maybe we could learn some useful insight into the virtues of smoking from the Natives in America if we cared to listen...
In Canada, an often disgusting photo and a threatening warning about the danger of smoking must be displayed on half the surface of a pack of cigarettes. On the side of a package is a list of toxic products it contains. This kind of warning is likely to appear someday on restaurant menus, entrances to public buildings, cars, etc. Because, let’s face it, about everything we ingest, every location we visit, all consumer products we use and all of our activities constitute a health hazard of some kind.