If you hate the stink of durries you can put some of the blame on Sir Walter Raleigh. The English statesman and adventurer returned from a trip to the Americas in 1586 with a new intrigue – tobacco – which he then spruiked to the ruling class. In popularising smoking, which later spread far and wide through colonialism, Raleigh unwittingly became one of history’s A-grade fuckwits.
I have of ten wondered how those conversations went back in the 1500s, as Walt hassled his mates in the aristocracy to take their maiden drag on a pipe.
“Get that into thee!” he might have said as Lord Archibald Winfield-Blue sucked poisonous gasses into his lungs for the first time. “Doeth the drawback, Archie!”
I imagine Winfield-Blue coughed his guts out, spewed a bit and then lay on Raleigh’s parlour floor with a heavy case of baccy spins.
Honestly, that first lungful of smoke is so awful. There is nothing pleasant about it.One can only think these smoking pioneers kept it up because they thought it made them look cool. After all, that’s the only reason I pushed through the nausea of my first cigarette at the age of thirteen.
I ended up as a pack-a-day smoker, but not overnight. No, it took about six months of repeatedly inhaling foul-tasting, throatscorching miasma. I finally vanquished common-sense and hard-wired instincts of self-preservation to cement a habit and take my place among Walter Raleigh’s army of durry-munching bastard offspring.
Unlike Raleigh, I can’t even claim naivety! Back when I started there was the same irrefutable evidence about health implications as there is today. But I ignored it because I wanted to be cool: to have people consider me a young man on the edge. A rebel. Dangerous.
“There’s nothing more dangerous than lung cancer,” my Year 10 science teacher Mr Champion used to say. If ‘The Champ’ busted you sneaking a ciggie at recess, rather than go the official route of detention he’d make you smoke three darts back-to-back – with a big drag every 15 seconds and no break.
A crowd of kids would gather to watch The Champ’s ‘physical education’ sessions because it was guaranteed every single teenage tough guy would tremble uncontrollably after about one-and-threequarter cigarettes, turn green and throw up on his desert boots. I certainly did, and it caused a lot of kids to quit on the spot.Not me though! The next day I’d be back on the lung busters. For decades henceforth I’d smoke myself silly, toting smart-looking, gold-embossed packets with branding that promised an ‘extra-mild’ or ‘special’ experience.
When I entered the workforce in late 1986, it seemed like everyone smoked. In the Sydney newspaper office where I got my start, ashtrays and coffee cups overflowed with the soot and butts of one trillion cigs, and the blue-grey smoke hung in the air of the newsroom from 4.30am until the last people left at 3.00pm.
Back then you could smoke in the work cars, in the pub, on trains, in dining rooms, in Parliament, in doctors’ waiting rooms, on planes, while putting your kids into bed…and you sure as hell could smoke on every street corner in the country.
By the mid-’90s though, the smart people in society had had enough; smoking was not only harmful and stinky, it had an evil side too – maiming and killing sensible people via passive smoking. Companies, backed by court rulings, banned smoking in the workplace.Then governments of all stripes started excising tracts of public space from the pungent exhaust of selfish smokers. We were consigned to the sidewalks outside of office buildings and, eventually, we weren’t welcome there either.
It was around the time of these outdoor bans – about 15 years ago – I finally quit for good.Today it’s heartening to see smoking rates are down to just 11 per cent of the population – half of what it was 20 years ago.But that still means about one in 10 people smoke.Which brings me to a father-and-son plumbing team I worked alongside recently (yep, I’m still shit-kicking as a part-time labourer). I’ll call these boys Jack and Eddie.
Like me, Jack is in his 50s and he too smoked as a younger man before wising up and quitting. Eddie is 21 and smokes like a mongrel, despite having to pay $60-odd for a packet that’s plastered with colour photos of cancer-eaten lungs. After a couple of days sniffing his secondhand smoke I made him an offer during smoko.
“I’ll bet you $200 you can’t smoke three of those in a row,” I said, nodding at Eddie’s freshly lit gasper.
Bristling with the arrogance of youth, he took the bait. “Bloody oath I could, Hendo. You’re on!”
He agreed to my conditions – a healthy drag every 15 seconds and no break. To Eddie’s credit he actually managed to light the third smoke but turned grey, dry retched and crushed it under his boot with threequarters left to go.
“Eeeeaaarghhhhh,” was all he could say. He still hasn’t paid up, though.