The newsagents and supermarkets of Exeter will undoubtedly have been inundated by visits from students following George Osbourne’s announcement, made in the House of Commons earlier today, that the price of cigarettes is to rise by 5% above inflation (a whopping 37p on each pack) at 18.00 tonight.
The new duty, introduced under the 2012 Budget, aims to help combat Britain’s ever-present debt, while also reducing the UK’s preventable illness and premature death rate. This will undoubtedly be welcomed by the millions up and down the country who see smoking as a vile habit that should, quite literally, be stamped out, but not, I expect, by the student population.
In an age where it’s acceptable to charge £9,000 per year for six hours of contact a week, is a reasonably priced packet of ciggies really too much to ask for us poor slaves to Higher Education?
I am, of course, working on the assumption that all students will be affected by the tax increase which, of course, they won’t. But if the jam-packed smoking areas in and outside of Exeter’s clubs are anything to go by, a very considerable amount will, as of this evening, find themselves digging yet deeper to scrape enough together to buy ten Lucky Strike (or twenty Sobranies if they’re feeling flash).
Or maybe even packing the fags in altogether, however given the student population’s tendency to prioritise want over necessity, I think it’s fair to say that this is a far less likely outcome. For those to whom the motivation to smoke is a constant source of bafflement and disgust, quitting must surely seem the only viable solution; for those who, like me, are under carbon monoxide’s not-so-sweet spell, however, this prospect couldn’t seem more ridiculous.
It’s not as though I haven’t ever stopped to think about the consequences of my habit, or indeed the prospect of giving up; such thoughts plague me each time I take a couple of minutes out of my day to spark up a Marlboro Light, in fact. The inhalation and exhalation of the cocktail of toxins, the names of which are ingrained in the mind of every schoolchild as soon as they’re old enough to sit through a slide show, (ammonia, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, arsenic…), has never failed to bring about vast amounts of questioning as to the intention behind it.
Sometimes this questioning comes from others – “What’s the point of it?” “Do you realise you’re killing yourself?” “Why can’t you just give up?” More often than not, however, it comes from me.
I know the statistics, I’ve seen the pictures, watched the documentaries, so why, after all that, do I still choose to take a rolled up piece of paper packed with 4000 harmful chemicals, set fire to it and inhale what is produced? For stress relief? Possibly. To maintain an image of maturity and sophistication? Maybe. To rebel against all those who say it’s wrong? Absolutely.
These are, perhaps, the reasons that drew me, at the impressionable age of fifteen, to smoking in the first place, but they no longer serve as good enough motives to continue. Now, when deadlines come calling, I’m no less stressed after chugging away on a cancer stick than I would be after counting to ten. Due to the bad press smokers (and particularly young smokers) have received in years of late, the image of smoking is no longer connected with that of silver-screen icons, but that of pre-teen council estate inhabitants hanging around bus shelters – not, in other words, an image I’d like to associate myself with. And thanks to three years’ dedication of keeping the habit up, those who disagreed initially have come to accept it as part and parcel of what I’m about. So why do I keep up the puffing? Well, I do it to remember.
The idea may sound silly – a ciggie’s never going to remind me of when my doctor’s appointment is, or which room my seminar’s being held in. What I’m talking about runs deeper, for me, anyway. Each time I light up, I’m inescapably reminded of every one I’ve ever lit. Not each one individually, obviously, (that would amount to around 6000 of the buggers, or, by Osbourne’s new prices, an eye-watering £2,241) but the fug of toxins brings about a smoky haze of memories.
Some are mundane: sneaking outside the school gates for a sly one before a statistics exam; the weekly trek from Birks to the Lemmy; huddling outside in the pouring rain during a break from work. Some are blurred by the effects of drink: the heady staggers back to the bus stop with an ill-chosen boyfriend; the mandatory post-lash debrief; drunken heart-to-hearts with strangers who have since become my closest companions.
Some are accompanied by the rush of success: the elated lighting-up after opening my exam results; a quickie at the stage door wearing a leotard and full face of makeup; sitting, champers in one hand, fag in the other, as I contemplated my acceptance to study at Exeter. Almost every important memory from the last three years of my life is in some way linked to smoking, and with a click of the lighter and a deep breath in they all come flooding back to me.
Now, I’m not for one moment suggesting that the only way to keep a hold on any knowledge of my adolescence is to keep shoving great clouds of fug down my pipes. Simply talking about the memories I so cherish brings them back to life. Certain songs bring about waves of emotions so strong I have to contact the person they remind me of immediately after hearing the lyrics. Or perhaps I could keep a photo album.
But there, in every picture, would be flame-haired, homosexual me, loving life and grasping that little roll of paper between his slender fingers. I’d want to become him again, so I’d reach for the packet and lighter once more because it’s the only way I know.
So I beg you, Mr Osbourne, to reconsider your decision to increase the price of my all-important memories beyond all levels of affordability.
It might well discourage newbies from taking it up, and the strain that it places on the NHS may indeed ease up. But it’ll just see me cutting back on my food intake and, given the high percentage of smokers among my compatriots, I won’t be the only one. Do you really want a load of starving, poverty-stricken students on your conscience? I thought not.