Soon the few people left in civilized society who still smoke will be stubbing out their last gaspers and resolving to quit. Some of them may turn instead to e-cigarettes, those funny little white cylinders of plastic and metal, which contain liquid nicotine and are being sold in ever greater quantity.
One of the great advantages of these things is that it’s perfectly legal to puff away at work. As you can’t actually light them, they don’t count as smoking. And as all they emit is a little water vapour, they aren’t even antisocial.
Yet, increasingly companies are taking the very regrettable step of banning them. Some say they are a fire risk or that they may be harmful, but the main reason seems to be that they look too like the real thing. A spokeswoman from the British Medical Association recently complained that they set the wrong example and they renormalize the idea of smoking in offices just when everyone had succeeded in making it seem freakish.
It is for that very reason - the similarity to a real cigarette and the way they normalize the idea of smoking at work - that I’m strongly in favour of people puffing away on them in the office.
Constitutionally, I’m no libertarian. I approve of employers banning things and issuing draconian rules and regulations, and I’m hoping that 2013 will see a lot more of them. Dress codes, fixed hours of work, Facebook bans - all these are excellent ideas. Rules are much less tiring than grey areas; they free you from fretting about small things and allow you to save your creative energy for things that matter.
But with these fake cigarettes, it’s different. Here at last is a way of getting back something that we lost on that day five years ago when the last office smoker was hounded out through the revolving doors to puff away on the pavement outside.
I’m not saying that we should bring those days back. Clearly we can’t let people slowly kill their colleagues by blowing poisonous fumes at them. But by focusing exclusively on the fact that smoking kills, we have forgotten that it was also one of the most useful rituals that offices have ever seen.
Smoking was the most reliable and most powerful way of bonding that anyone has yet found. The simple act of lighting someone else’s cigarette, of offering a pack around or chatting for just the time it takes to smoke one created a good feeling that lasted about as long as the tar sits in your lungs.
I had proof of this a couple of weeks ago when I spoke at an event for management consultants. At the end a middle-aged woman came up to me, arms open.
“Lucy!” she cried.
I squinted at her for a bit. “Alex!” I said, flinging myself at her.
We weren’t even friends at school but we were fellow frequenters of the sixth form common room, where she was incredibly generous with her gold packets of Benson & Hedges. But there we were, not having seen each other for three decades hugging like long lost sisters.
With the gradual ostracism of smokers at work, the bonding value has been strengthened but has been turned into something nastier. When smokers were rounded up and made to puff away in special little rooms, gossip took on a more divisive tone.
Now, it is worse still. Smokers have to stand on the pavement outside, where they look unsavoury to visitors arriving at the office. My (very) few smoking acquaintances tell me that the camaraderie is stronger than ever, but it is of an us-and-them sort: smokers against the world.
Soon even these outdoor huddles may be outlawed and all chance of bonding through smoking will be gone. Fewer people will die very nasty deaths but something that used to be wonderful will have gone.
The e-cigarette is nothing like as good as the real thing, as you can’t offer a pack around, you can’t light someone else’s and there is no beginning, middle or end. But it is a memory of a sort of comradeship that we have failed to recreate in any other non-death-inducing guise.
In honour of this memory I would start “smoking” them myself, but that would seem too perverse. Instead, I’m planning something else for 2013. To get a cut glass whisky decanter and fill it with brown apple juice. It could sit on my desk with a couple of nice tumblers and I could pretend I’m Don Draper and offer people a convivial drink as they pass by.
There is a small problem. The thing that bonds most tightly about cigarettes and booze is the vice. And if you take the vice away, there is nothing left that sticks.