Pulmonary rape

I’ve been accused of a lot of things in my time. Some I readily owned up to; others didn’t warrant dignifying with a response. Some I immediately discounted, given the dubious mental state of the accuser(s); while others I took to heart. I’ve resolved most of them to my satisfaction but one or two return unbidden at the most inconvenient of times.

Practice makes perfect

I smoke. I don’t smoke every day, or every week, but I smoke and have done so intermittently since 1984. My Orwellian character was a drop-dead gorgeous third-year engineering student. In the University pub one night, he offered me a cigarette, which I took. I was planning to put it in my scrapbook, to preserve it for posterity. Then he held out a light. What could I do? I was young, innocent, and very impressionable. I took my first drag, just as he asked me my name. As I opened my mouth to answer, my words were lost in a billow of smoke. How uncool! I was mortified. I spent the rest of the night in front of my bathroom mirror, practicing, lighting cigarette after cigarette, taking a drag, and saying my name. When I finally managed to hold the smoke in nether land until I’d had my say, I felt I’d accomplished something remarkable. And indeed I had – like Bill Clinton, I can say, hand on my heart, that I don’t inhale and that not inhaling has cost me a small fortune!

Guardian of the ashtray

I’m a very considerate smoker…when I smoke. In mixed company, I’m the self-appointed guardian of the ashtray making sure that cigarettes don’t smoulder and that smoke doesn’t blow in the direction of the non-smoker(s). When I’m smoking, I try to smoke when others have lit up, matching my cigarette with theirs, and thus increasing the amount of ‘smoke-free’ time. I won’t smoke around children or pregnant women, and only sheer desperation would drive me to smoke in a car with a non-smoker passenger. So this accusation of pulmonary rape hit me quite hard: destroying her health by forcing smoke into her lungs against her will? I ask you! I don’t remember asking her to sit beside me!

Choose your poison

Passive smoking happens but its effects are open to debate. A 1998 WHO study showed that not only might there be no link between passive smoking and lung cancer but that it could even have a protective effect. But were these findings made public? Not so as you’d notice. Exhaust fumes are far from healthy and yet you don’t hear anyone complaining about people driving! Stand at any tram stop in the city for just five minutes and see how much toxic air you inhale. Open your street-facing windows on a still day and watch as the smog settles on your sofa. Catch a bus in the heat of the summer and choke on the chemical combination of stale sweat and cheap deodorant. Deliver me from the anti-smoking, self-righteous, judgmental zealot, who screams ‘pulmonary rape’ as she waddles towards her SUV, her hairspray cutting a hole through the ozone, her perfume wilting weeds in her wake! Passive smoking, luv? There are worse things in life!

Preventable death by heart disease nearly matches smoking-related deaths in the USA, while obesity-related deaths are climbing…but where’s the accusation of ‘artery rape’? Big industry contaminates our rivers and our seas, clears our forests, and pollutes our air to make products that we can’t get enough of. And yet you’d have to listen very carefully to hear even the faintest echo of self-gratifying consumers crying ‘environmental rape’. But I’m raping her lungs? As the great Ambrose Bierce once put it: hypocrisy… prejudice with a halo!

Intellectuális reggeli

Let’s forget about those who smoke automatically, out of habit, not out of pleasure, with little thought for anyone but themselves: those who exhale great plumes of smoke indiscriminately as they walk along the street or stand waiting at a tram stop; those whose hair and clothes smell like week-old ashtrays; those you will to be silent because their breath smells like they’ve had dirty socks for dinner. Let’s focus instead on those who enjoy and appreciate smoking for what it is and remember that Budapest is one of the few European capitals where smoking is still allowed in public places. It’s a freedom that’s likely to disappear in the not-too-distant future, one that should be treated with respect. My local café, Francesco’s on Ferenc Tér, offers an intellectuális reggeli: a coffee, a newspaper and a cigarette. It’s heaven on a hectic day. And as I sit angelically on my cloud of smoke, with my cigarette for company, I give silent thanks for the simple, uncomplicated pleasure it affords.

First published in the Budapest Times, 1 March 2010

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