Captain Corelli author LOUIS DE BERNIERES says tobacco firms are not better than murderers

A few days ago I met a beautiful woman in her early 50s who couldn’t stop smoking, and it gave me a feeling of desperate sorrow.

How much of her life will she forfeit? Ten, 15, 20 years?

It was an encounter that set me thinking about my own relationship with tobacco.

I’m 67 and anyone of my vintage will recall the enormous part that smoking used to play in our lives. It was something grown-ups did, and so you would aspire to it if you were young.

My father used to smoke Guards cigarettes, because he had been an officer in the Queen’s Dragoon Guards.

My little sister and I used to take his butts from the ashtray and smoke the last quarter-inch in the shed at the end of the garden.

Later, at prep school, I would steal Ambassador cigarettes from the headmaster’s study, break them up and smoke them up a tree in a pipe I had made from a shotgun cartridge and piece of glass tube from the science lab.

My mother had been a heavy smoker during the war, when she was a submarines signals officer in what was then Ceylon, having to stay up all night on a diet of cigarettes and tea.

But after the war she packed it in, except for one Cocktail Sobranie a week, which she smoked on Saturday evenings with a glass of wine.

She would put on one of her favourite records, sit back and smoke. Her bliss was beautiful to witness.

My grandfather ‘AK’ smoked both a pipe and cigarettes. He had bullets left in him from World War I and had smashed his legs when the landing gear on his Sopwith Camel collapsed.

He would lean down and stuff his pipe with Three Nuns Navy Cut while steering his Morris Minor with one shoulder; it was bloody terrifying.

His wife, my grandmother, suffered from paralysing depression, and he had to look after her while keeping up appearances. The smoking must have been a matter of consolation and pain relief.

Almost all of us smoked. It was part of being cool and sophisticated. It gave you something to do at parties, something to share at bus stops, something to help you study, something to help you keep awake. Someone you fancied could be approached with ‘Got a light?’

Like my grandfather, I was smoking both cigarettes and a pipe when I was 17. It was our social lubricant, but there always came a time when you realised you were addicted, and no amount of willpower could make you stop.

You saw yourself prematurely ageing in the mirror, your skin yellowing, your teeth turning brown, your energy gone. You began to hate yourself and your enslavement.

If you were lucky, your instinct for survival kicked in. I had several hours of hypnotism and was miraculously switched off.

Within days I was feeling ten years younger and the ageing was going into reverse.

It didn’t work on my girlfriend, who tried to stop anyway, and just got very bad-tempered.

My father managed to quit when he was 50, and lived to 96. My Uncle John, who smoked continuously, didn’t, and suffered a series of strokes. The list of people who have been assisted to an early death would surely reach to the moon and back. Not just T.S. Eliot, but whole generations of continental intellectuals, for a start.

And P.J. O’Rourke. I made friends with him on a transatlantic voyage. He would come up on deck to smoke, and I would come up for the fresh air.

His intelligence, wit, and capacity for bulls**t detection were infinite. He died this year, of lung cancer. He was a good-looking and lovable man whose satire had delighted and enlightened us all.

We all know how the tobacco companies pretended doggedly for years that tobacco was harmless. We know how they cynically expand into the developing world as the developed world renounces its addiction.

We know there are organisations that frame the right to smoke as a civil liberty. I have some sympathy for their point of view, in theory.

The point is that liberty has nothing to do with it, because the addicted are not free.

They have been deliberately trapped by people who are taking their money in return for killing them. People who trade in tobacco are no better than the drug dealers who purposely turn their clients into junkies.

I sometimes joke that no one should ever vote for me, because if I were to achieve office there would be too many people I would put up against a wall and shoot.

In reality, I think it would only be the executives of tobacco companies. You can call them ‘Merchants of Death’, because that is exactly what they are.

There was a time when it was all right to claim that doctors recommended a particular brand; or that Craven A with cork tips were good for you; or to imply in an advertisement that a particular cigarette would make you more sophisticated and sexually desirable, or as rugged as the Marlboro Man.

Five of those rugged role models died of smoking, and with them died the days of innocence. Anyone who sells a cigarette these days is as guilty as a common crack dealer.

Such was our collective stupidity that we all carried on smoking long after we all knew how lethal it was, and how protracted and painful were the deaths that it brought about.

Back in the 1990s, I think I began to get wise when one of my South London neighbours fell ill. He was a huge, powerful dock worker from Belfast who was spending his retirement leaning over the front gate, smoking and chatting to neighbours.

One day his wife called me and asked: ‘Please will you come and help me get Bob off the toilet?’

It was shocking. He had turned into a skeleton, his bones poking through his skin; he exactly resembled a victim of Auschwitz.

He couldn’t stand or even raise his arm because he had no air in his blood, even though he was attached to an oxygen tank. He died soon afterwards.

I’d started smoking a few years after my grandfather ‘AK’ died. I don’t think I would have done so if my mother had not lied to us about what had really happened.

She said he had just ‘died’. I remember her telling me late at night when I was half asleep and only a tiny boy.

What really happened was that AK developed emphysema. He was given pills, as if that could do any good, but was not told that he should avoid alcohol.

He was playing cards one night, barely able to breathe. He began to shake, and let the cards spill.

With the last of his strength, he climbed the stairs, and in his bedroom blew his head off with a shotgun. He had survived two world wars and a lifetime of pain.

Was he murdered? No, because it happened before we really knew what smoking does to you.

Those who die of smoking-related diseases these days actually have been murdered, and we should be asking why their murderers are still at large.


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