The Telegraph
Monday , September 1 , 2014
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- The decline of tobacco and its lessons

Fifty years ago, in 1964, Dan Galouye wrote a brilliant science-fiction novel that featured a virtual city. This fully realized urban world, complete with individualized people, was, in fact, a computer simulation designed to save market researchers the expense of polling real people. One of the uses that this counterfeit world was put to in the novel, was to test out the potential consequences of a ban on smoking.

I was a 15-year-old non-smoker when I read Simulacron-3, but tobacco was so much a part of my world that life without cigarettes and smokers could only be part of some alternative reality. Galouye, writing in the heyday of the Marlboro Man, used this absurd prospect (a smokeless America) as a way of establishing the science- fictional credentials of his story.

In 2014, where smokers puff sadly in dedicated airport cubicles, where tobacco companies pretend to be shampoo manufacturers to get their names into commercials, where fictional characters in movies are reproached by public health warnings the instant they light up, Galouye’s novel reads less like a vision of an impossible future, than the logical end-point of present trends. In a world where even outdoor smoking is banned in public parks and university campuses, it’s worth reminding ourselves of that dystopian world of the not-so-distant past, where smoking was (nearly) a fundamental right.

My parents, who had never sneaked a drag in their lives, had ashtrays carefully positioned all over the house. I still have them, made of every material known to man: bell metal, copper, ceramic, glass, even wood. Non-smoking hosts used to fill cigarette boxes for the pleasure of their guests. I can remember many homes that were strictly teetotal, but none at all where guests weren’t allowed to smoke.

I first encountered such a home as a graduate student in England. A Californian couple invited me along with several other friends to dinner and when we reached their flat we saw pasted on their front door a little sign that read ‘This is a No Smoking Zone’. We weren’t annoyed, we were appalled. It wasn’t just that our pleasure in smoking sociably had been thwarted; we were morally outraged that a host should be so inhospitable as to place his faddish prohibitions above the comfort of his guests.

My childhood, and my nostalgia for it, is closely bound up with cigarette smoke. For every middle-aged, middle-class Indian raised in a big city, eating out meant going to Kwality’s restaurant twice a year. Dining out meant chicken sandwiches, cona coffee, square slabs of tutti-frutti embedded with a wafer and, most importantly, the luxurious, unhomely smell of restaurant air, made up of some secret blend of air-conditioning, vanilla ice-cream and cigarette smoke.

Running errands meant, amongst other things, running down to the paanwalla to buy uncles packets of Wills Navy Cut (one rupee and ten paise for ten). The padres at my school smoked cigarettes and cigars with relish and, somewhat contradictorily, caned furtive student smokers with enthusiasm. From this we took away the lesson that our sin wasn’t smoking so much as smoking-while-young. One of the principal differences between school and college was that you could smoke publicly in college. I was taught history by a disgruntled lecturer who sublimated his misanthropy by drawing viciously on cigarettes right through his classes.

The way you consumed tobacco placed you. The poor snorted snuff and shook bidis out of little conical packets. Middle-aged men in government offices chewed on tambaku paan and calmly spat blood-red cud into brass receptacles parked in desk drawers. Genteel housewives looking for a respectable high, fed themselves little pinches of paan masala turbo-charged with tobacco. Veteran university radicals smoked unfiltered Charminars, poor undergraduates smoked Capstans and aspired to Wills Navy Cut, while women enigmatically preferred Four Square Kings over everything else.

Cigarette advertisements were banned just ten years ago, but they seem to belong to some remote epoch. It’s hard to remember that film stars used to endorse cigarettes. Akshay Kumar did a series of commercials for Red & White, and Jackie Shroff smouldered broodingly for Charminar. Heroes smoked routinely in Hindi films. With Ashok Kumar cigarettes weren’t an optional extra, they were a necessary prop. Along with his spectacles and his dressing gown, a cigarette was essential part of of his actorly business. Shatrughan Sinha’s only claim to our attention was his knack for tossing cigarettes into his mouth at long range.

Dev Anand in Hum Dono has a song, which is the greatest plug for smoking in the history of motion pictures. Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya has Dev Anand smoking right through it: while walking, while changing into his uniform, while driving his jeep. The second line of the song goes: “har fikr ko dhuen mein udata chala gaya”, which, freely translated, means “I kept blowing my cares away in smoke.” There’s a bizarre moment where Dev Anand tosses his cigarette away into a pool of water and as he looks down at the floating stub, Sadhana appears like a vision, with the cigarette superimposed on her face. It comes perilously close to her mouth but thankfully she doesn’t close her spectral lips over it and inhale. If the tobacco industry had had any imagination at all, it would have adopted Rafi’s great song as a kind of anthem for smokers.

Given the ubiquity of tobacco, it’s remarkable how quickly the tide turned against smoking within the Indian middle class and how little protest there was against the bans on smoking in public places. Indian universities, for example, used to be crammed with smokers. I remember how, at the end of seminars, nine-tenths of the male participants would fumble for cigarettes the moment they escaped into the open air. Now there isn’t a single person smoking, partly because it’s formally illegal to smoke on campuses, but more importantly because most middle-class people have stopped smoking.

I think the reason for this is that even in the high noon of the Sixties and Seventies, smoking cigarettes in India wasn’t entirely a cool thing to do. There was a residual moral sanction against it. You weren’t, for example, meant to smoke in the presence of parents and assorted ‘elders’. Women weren’t meant to smoke at all (though they did); unlike Hollywood movies in which virtually every heroine smokes from the Forties onwards, only vamps and fallen women smoked in Bombay’s productions.

Also, at no point could Indians legally smoke in buses or aeroplanes or cinema halls. I remember being amazed by the permissiveness of English movie theatres where one half of the hall came with seats fitted with ashtrays the better to smoke with. Absurdly, the other half of the hall was designated Non-Smoking. You could actually watch your smoke, lit by the projector’s beam, spiral across from one side of the hall to the other.

In India, smoking was always a daring vice, a nasha, not a taken-for-granted habit. So when the medical campaign against it achieved critical mass, middle-class smokers keeled over without a fight. This was achieved not by passing laws to ban smoking but by taxing cigarettes, regulating their sale and relentlessly, even luridly, highlighting the damage to health that smoking caused.

This is something that Oommen Chandy’s government in Kerala might want to remember. Its abrupt decision to first shut down bars and then achieve complete prohibition in the state by 2023 is a combination of political opportunism and religious puritanism. You don’t need Dan Galouye’s simulated world to test out the consequences of legislating prohibition; there are a dozen real-world precedents. Prohibition has been a moral and social disaster everywhere that it has been tried: in the United States, in Tamil Nadu, in Andhra Pradesh, in Mizoram and, in spite of Narendra Modi’s genius for administration, in Gujarat. Human beings don’t want to be suddenly saved from their pleasures by self-righteous laws, but, as the campaign against smoking demonstrates, they can be educated out of their excesses.