I started smoking just before I turned 17. I’d graduated from high school, and in the weeks afterwards there would be gatherings and parties held by my schoolmates, a big old month long celebration of our emergence from the Australian schooling system as children who generally know how to complete exams. I would attend these parties often, not because I liked the people who threw and attended them, but because my friends and I liked to dislike the people who threw and attended them. One night, there were four or five of us misanthropes sitting at a table in some backyard in Perth’s eastern suburbs, away from the raucous attempts to get wasted and flirt and maybe cop a feel that was going on in the rest of the party, and I was drunk and bored. I wondered what the hell I was doing there, was probably talking about art and how I didn’t want to go to university and that I would instead ride on the coat tails of my more academically talented friends and that I was kind of disappointed by Interpol’s new album and that I wished Radiohead would release a new one or something. One friend was a smoker- Winfield Blues being her cigarette of choice, and she had been chain-smoking all night.
She was one of my favourite people in the world, and there must have been something deeply attractive in the attitude she portrayed as she waved her cigarette around her head while she spoke passionately about whatever, taking drags and puffing for emphasis, her Mohawk drooping a little, exuding the kind of cool that can only come from preoccupation. I looked at my overweight, crusty-punk-best-female-friend and thought to myself “Fuck it. I want that attitude”, and asked her for a cigarette.
While I can’t remember what it was like to smoke that first cigarette, I assume I must have enjoyed the dizziness (the same reason I began binge drinking every weekend when I was about 15), and I probably felt like the coolest person in the world, because I kept scabbing cigarettes off her that night. And then again the next time we went to a party. And again, and again, and again. Then eventually she put her foot down and said I had to stop smoking hers, so another friend and I found places that didn’t ask us for identification when we attempted to purchase our mate Winni Blue, and we became fully fledged smokers.
It wasn’t until I went to tafe to study art that I came in to contact with other brands of cigarettes. I had a limited capacity to describe the differences between them outside of how much of a head spin I experienced after a few puffs, but I knew what felt good, and new what I thought was cool, and at some point I began smoking Marlboro Reds because they felt badass and the packaging design was awesome. Falling in love with a boy who smoked a 25 pack of these cigarettes a day had a lot to do with it, and pretty soon I was in way over my head, properly addicted to nicotine, just like I was addicted to the boy. I remember seeing a psychiatrist at around that point for anxiety problems, and he suggested I give up smoking marijuana, but that I shouldn’t bother trying to give up cigarettes just yet because it was a security blanket that I couldn’t afford to let go of, for the sake of my fragile 17 year old sanity. Seemed pretty legit.
Seven years later, I still think of what that doctor said to me, and it is one of many excuses I now have as to why I continue to smoke, despite having full awareness that that my body and mind suffer for it daily, and that it will kill me if I don’t give it up soon. There were a few years in which I went through spurts of choosing to buy cigarettes over buying food, knowing that hunger pains were easily quelled by nicotine and that the reverse would only make me put on weight. I have had a really, really shitty cough on and off for years, and occasionally experience chest pain. If I could go back and somehow tell young me not to start smoking if I knew she would listen, would I do it? Probably not. I’ve experienced a lot of easy relief from all kinds of situations because I’ve excused myself to go and have a cigarette. I’ve also experienced of a lot of interesting situations for the same reason. And there is nothing quite like the first drag of a post-coital cigarette. No, I wouldn’t tell myself not to smoke, because I know I’ll give it up eventually, most likely soon.
Instead, I would go back and tell myself to never worry about what is cool, to never worry about trying to be cool, that brand associations (and brand designs) are absolutely meaningless, and that younger me should spend more time writing so that I would be way better at it now so I can attempt to write a novel.
What I’m trying to get at is that I believe this plain packaging for cigarettes thing is a pretty good idea. I don’t know much about that whole potentially-breaching-international-trade-laws hoo-ha, but I know that if all cigarettes looked the same, it would mean that young smokers would have one less fucked up brand awareness/marketing slave deal going on to confuse them about the world even further, and that can only be a positive. It is a pity that pop-stars and television shows and clothing stores can’t be treated the same way.
And that’s the end of my story.