Something for which to thank the government, at last. It is much, much more fun buying cigarettes these days. It was quite good fun when they stopped having the fags on display and you had to play a kind of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game with the woman behind the counter. A bit like that section in Play School where you had to guess if it was behind the round window or the square window or the other window, a sort of arched regency type of thing. The woman scurrying hither and thither, pulling back shutters and scouring the shelves, not allowed to open all compartments at one time in case everybody suddenly dies of cancer because they’ve seen some cigarettes.
But now it’s better still. From May next year onwards all cigarettes must be in plain packaging, with nothing to distinguish each packet from the next except the name of the brand at the bottom. Which frankly is a bit of a giveaway, if you ask me. It just means it takes slightly longer for the lass behind the counter to locate the brand I want, which is annoying for her.
But that’s not where the fun comes in. The fun is in the photographs which now by law must adorn each carton and are the only immediately distinguishing feature of each packet. Photographs of people who have been really messed up by smoking (even if a good few of the hilariously gruesome images were not occasioned by tobacco at all, and are basically a lie). I’ve started playing Nicotine Poker with a bunch of friends who smoke and so am amassing a large number of empty cartons. A royal flush is five packets which depict a woman hawking up blood into a handkerchief. Very difficult to collect. Or there’s a full house — three of the Asian man with rotting gums, plus two tracheostomies. Or two limp penises and a trio of diseased lungs.
It’s getting very competitive — I’ve even started peering into waste bins to see if any rare cartons have been discarded within. Yay! It’s the Chinese bloke with a lip tumour, or that guy with the weird black thing on his throat! The woman behind the counter of my local supermarket in Saltburn has started asking what pictures I want. I always tell her — the woman spitting blood into a hanky. Never mind the poker, there’s also something beguilingly sexy about that particular shot. The girl don’t give a damn! Last time I went into the store I needed only the usual 20 smokes, but because the woman behind the counter had a whole batch of the sultry and magnificent bloodied-hanky babe I bought four packets instead.
‘You’d have thought,’ the friendly cashier mused as she handed over my fags, ‘that if she knew she was being photographed, she’d have washed her bloody hair.’ Indeed. Lank, greasy blonde hair and bright red expectorant. What’s not to like?
I worry about the kids, mind. What are they going to do? The new legislation insists that cigarettes must be sold in packets containing no fewer than 20 ‘sticks’, as the quacks and the government insist upon calling them. How are they going to afford that? There was a corner shop only a few miles from my Saltburn supermarket which back in the 1970s would sell us kids three Black Cat in a little paper sweet packet for about nine pence. An absolute godsend when you were gasping for a swift, strong draw having just endured the 11-plus examination, or confirmation.
Thing is, though, I suppose that kids these days have a lot more money than they did in my early adolescence — and also, of course, a plethora of competitively priced rivals to the gentle carcinogenic placatory comfort blanket of nicotine. Stuff that might kill them right now, rather than way down the line.
OK, I will be laughing on the other side of my face one day not too distant, you might argue. On the very side of my face that has been comprehensively obliterated by a grotesque excrescence which might itself one day qualify for a starring role in Nicotine Poker. Full house — three of Liddle’s tongue tumour and two of that babe with the hanky! I am not an idiot — and nor, I would suggest, is anyone else who smokes. It is impossible for any of us to be immune from the knowledge of what panoply of risks smoking entails, nor how horribly antisocial a habit an affluent, liberal and powerful tranche of the population consider it to be.
We know, we get it, we don’t need the hanky babe — welcome though she might be — nor the minor impediments to our attempts to buy the drug of our choice. We are aware that our choice of narcotic is considered beyond the pale. But this infantile persecution of a lifestyle choice — which is indeed an injurious lifestyle choice, even if it is scarcely more injurious than 20 or 30 other lifestyle choices we might mention — demeans us just as it demeans the government.
There is hypocrisy at work — if the government were true to its apparent beliefs it would ban smoking completely, instead of making it a pastime which increasingly can be enjoyed only by the well-off. But an outright ban might enrage the electorate. And also, of course, the government has become as dependent upon those vast revenues from tobacco taxation — about £14 billion annually at the last count — as any smoker is dependent upon his brief hit of the weed. It is a laughable moral compromise, epitomised by the idiocy of not allowing tobacco companies to put a nice design on their packets, but still greedily taking money from them.