I was a “Professional Smoker”

Culture | 14 August 2017
Keeley L Walkerby Keeley L Walker

Excuses, Excuses.

“I’ll quit on my next birthday”, “I’ll give up in the New Year”, “The minute we close this deal, I’m never lighting another cigarette” – any of these sound familiar? For smokers, there is always a reason not to quit. I think I had the best (by which I mean most laughable) one when I heard myself say, actually out loud, in public: “I HAVE to smoke. I HAVE to smoke for my career!

To give you the full picture, you need to envision the choreography that accompanied those last three words. Let me describe it in slow-mo. Cigarette in hand, raise up to the mouth, hold between the teeth, over-dramatised stamp of the foot on the last syllable, turn around, blow and flounce off in a cloud of smoke. Get the picture? Classy, right? That’s a person, or should I say toddler, you could reason with.

Separating me from my cigarettes was like trying to take a dummy from a baby, and I responded accordingly. Every time. But on this occasion, in my warped, infantile, nicotine-dependent reasoning, if you look really hard, I had a point.

Just hear me out.

Rewind five, even ten years, and I made my living as a journalist on a national daily newspaper.

My specialist areas were society, showbiz, culture and ‘the arts’, and London-by-night was my playground. In other words, I was a champagne-quaffing, canapé-scoffing girl-about-town, hopping from party-to-party, gathering enough ammunition with which to head in to battle the next day. (By which I mean collecting stories to pitch to my editor but, as we have established, I like to over-dramatise.)

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I lost track of how many events I attended very early on (contractually I had to go to a minimum of 4 a week, occasionally it would be up to 12). Suffice it to say, that if there was a ribbon to be cut or an envelope to be opened, chances are yours truly was there to witness it. Whether it was a book launch, an award ceremony, a restaurant opening or a premiere, there I was chatting away to celebrities, politicians, sportspeople and socialites looking for yarns or direct quotes which I would weave into broadsheet newspaper copy the next day, only to head out and do it all over again come 6 0’clock. Now, where were we? Oh yes, the smoking.

By night, my world was a treasure trove of potential stories set against an ever-evolving back-drop of The Great and The Beautiful. And the cigarette was my Access-All-Areas.

But the experienced ‘diary girl’ (the name for journos who gain stories by attending formal events) knows there is only one area you really need access to. The place where the like-minded drop their guards and, in the absence of agents and publicists, exchange in mutual chit-chat with whoever happens to be standing closest. The holy grail of tittle-tattle. The Smoking Area.

Yes, the smoking ban of 2007 came just in time for me as a cub reporter. I entered Fleet Street amid the backlash of incensed smokers suddenly forced to socialise through a window, hunched over a lighter and risking their hair going frizzy in unfortunate weather, having been banished from civilised, or sheltered, society.

It was a very whingy time for the smoking community but it was priceless to me as a writer.

It was over a cigarette that I got my first ‘scoop’. It was over a cigarette that I exchanged contact details with virtually every worthy source or VIP I met. It was over a cigarette I typed up my notes when I eventually staggered home after event number three and it was with a cigarette, in a smoking area, naturally, that I congratulated myself when my stories made it to print.

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So, yes, there was logic to my ridiculous comment. Smoking enabled me in my career. Remove the events and the VIPs, and many professionals still succumb to this logic. If your boss smokes, when better to catch them for that chat you have been trying to schedule than when you accidentally on purpose run into them on a smoke break, right?

The cigarette (particularly when mixed with alcohol) was the greatest social lubricant known to man. Until…

It was October 2012 when I had my first vaping experience. It was good. Not mind-blowing, but intriguing. Different enough from the nine other quit-smoking remedies I had previously attempted to be worth taking seriously. Certainly, having experimented with a few devices and found flavours that suited my palette, I was getting the satisfaction I had once derived from cigarettes because I was experiencing no cravings. And my preference for the fruitier liquids, sufficiently divorced the experience from my former smoking to deaden any comparisons. This was something new. This was fun. This was, at long last, something that worked.

But what of the smoking area? That goldmine of opportunities on which my livelihood depended? If I am not a smoker, hanging out there with no prop is just plain creepy. It was time to take my new toy for a spin.

The Serpentine Gallery was the place and the unveiling of a new light installation was the event – or, to put it another way – another opening of another envelope. But the guest list was impressive and, if played right, the evening could be promising. It is always after the speech (any launch or unveiling will have someone if not several people making a speech) that smokers flock to their outside area to top up their nicotine before re-entering to top up on champagne.

During said speech I looked down at my vaporiser and cursed it for it’s clunkiness and mechanical appearance. “Could you at least try and look a bit more discreet, just for tonight, I’d be really grateful,” I harrumphed at the device.

Then came my cue in the form of the following words:

“Finally, I would like to thank our sponsors, our wonderful hosts and all of you for coming. Enjoy the rest of your evening. Thank you.”

Right on schedule drinks were drained and the smoke-deficient revellers made their way outside. Naturally, I followed suit.

It was all I could do not to ask the nearest smoker if they might spare me a cigarette but, no, I was three days into this experiment now, I was determined to see it through. So out came my vaporiser and what happened next was greater than I could have ever hoped.

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“Hey what’s that?”, a doe-eyed, up-and-coming actress slurred as she instructed a group of friends to join her in approaching me.

“Oh, this is attempt number 10 to give up smoking,” I replied with all the cool I could muster.

“Can I have a go?” came her care-free, excruciatingly confident, response.

“Oh sure, knock yourself out,” I enthused, because I’m totally relaxed about sharing with strangers. No really, I love it.

Taking me at my word my new favourite possession was being passed around the smoking area like an item of wonder. That tip came into contact with more lips than a teenager at its first disco. And then came the questions.

Where did you get it? How much is it? Does it really stop you smoking? Can you get ones that taste like cigarettes? Is it still bad for you?

Woah, hold on, hold on, I said (not out loud, of course, it was a fancy place) I ask the questions around here!

And so I did. I systematically asked all of my new ‘friends’ everything I wanted to know as we passed the device around. We were a tribe for those few moments, a collective, we were on the same team.

I got five stories that night. And I was responsible for potentially converting about a dozen smokers. I call that a success. It was to be another two years before I gave up the canapé- circuit altogether and throughout it all, from that night on, the Vaporiser was my partner in my crime, my Access-all-Areas. I’d chucked out the cigarettes and upgraded.

It will be five years in October since I made the switch. Five years since I ran out of excuses. And I’ve never looked back.

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