Excerpt: ‘Complex Pleasures’, by Connor Tomas O’Brien

Photo by micadew. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

Since I began using a vaporiser, I’ve found it difficult to think about anything but cigarettes. I never had this compulsion when I smoked, which was rarely more than a few cigarettes a day, and, eventually, rarely less. Casual smoking, a half-century after the Surgeon General’s report linking tobacco and cancer, seems to be tenable only when unexamined; as soon as you try to wrangle with the complexities of a known bad habit that hasn’t yet tipped into an addiction, all you can hope for is cognitive dissonance. If you smoke just a little, thinking too much about cigarettes compels you to make a choice, one way or the other: to give up completely, or to give fully into dangerous self-indulgence.

I’m in an odd space: a non-smoker addicted to nicotine. I never used to chain-smoke sober; now I chain-vape as I read paeans to cigarettes. My new relationship with nicotine, I realise, is a very 2016 relationship, one that only seems to tighten as my desire for cigarettes disappears. I can crudely grasp how it works, the way the brain’s hunger for nicotine latches onto a longing for whatever it has learnt to most closely associate with its delivery. Now that I can find a ready supply of nicotine elsewhere, suspended in a solution of vaporised glycol and glycerine, the mental pathways linking the sight or taste or touch or smell of a cigarette with a sharp and tiny high have expeditiously re-routed.

I speak to an ex pack-a-day smoker who now vapes. She tells me that when she tried placing a cigarette in her mouth recently, it felt like a prop fag, the kind they use in the theatre. She lit it up and inhaled, but it still felt wrong—the nicotine seemed odd, smothered in tar, so she butted the cigarette out after a few puffs and picked up her vaporiser instead.

I vape through five millilitres of 6 mg nicotine rockmelon-flavoured e-liquid as I read through Cigarettes Are Sublime, Richard Klein’s 1994 eulogy for smoking. Few writers are brave or stupid enough to try to defend smoking now, especially when they recognise that their work might fall into the hands of the young and impressionable. Klein doesn’t seem to care. To any serious smoker looking to rationalise their habit, his book serves as a perfect antithesis to Allen Carr’s 1985 self-help classic, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking—one text expertly manoeuvring its reader away from dependence, the other arming its reader with pages of justification for it.

There’s a Mephistophelian brilliance to Klein’s work. His argument—that cigarettes are awe-inspiring because they inextricably bind death and life, deferred pain with immediate satisfaction—is both simple and difficult to counter, because it’s impossible for anybody to decide at the outset, when they first pick up a cigarette at thirteen or sixteen or twenty, whether the horrific toll of months of chemotherapy at the end of their life will be regarded as an acceptable trade-off. The idea that cancer is a core component of the smoking experience—that which turns it into the guiltiest of guilty pleasures—seems to be the last coherent argument that can be made in favour of cigarettes. Klein doesn’t even try to present it as justification—instead, he suggests, the Grim Reaper waiting at the burning end is precisely what gives each cigarette the “taste of infinity.”

I inhale the e-liquid and let it out again, searching for evidence of the “negative pleasure” in vapour that Klein finds in smoke—some kind of marker that what I’m doing is drawing me closer to my maker. I don’t feel as though what I’m doing is healthy, but all outwards signs point to benignity. The vapour doesn’t get up my nostrils the way smoke used to, accumulating until I blow the snotty, black flecks into a tissue; I don’t end up with a feeling of embers in the mouth, long after the nicotine has passed through my bloodstream. There are few visual traces of my habit after the vapour dissipates: no ashtray full of butts, no fingers or walls stained yellow. The scent of air freshener clouds the room, then dissipates slowly.

In 1988, RJ Reynolds introduced Premier, a non-combusting, reduced-carcinogen cigarette that heated tobacco pellets without burning them. On an NBC News broadcast that year, one smoker likened the experience to “smoking blackboard chalk.” It failed in the market within a year. A decade later, Philip Morris tried to introduce the Accord, a complex “smoking system” that produced no ash or odour, but required each cigarette be inserted into an unsightly, battery-operated heater. Predictably, it too went nowhere.

My earliest memories of adults talking about smoking centred around the prospect of a hypothetical non-carcinogenic cigarette that would look and taste just like the cancerous ones they were used to. I remember two parents of primary school friends half-joking that there was no point quitting, because this delicious, imaginary cigarette would surely be on the market before their habit did any lasting damage. In the form of the Premier, Accord and others, crude variants of this cigarette were continuously flickering into and out of existence in the US across the nineties—but, being before anybody knew how to google, and in the wake of blanket bans on cigarette marketing, these products manifested in Australia as little more than hearsay.

By the mid-2000s, when I was sixteen, I was handed a Dutch Masters cigarillo at a house party and told, by the kid who gave it to me, that cancer would probably be cured within our lifetime, making us the first generation that could truly smoke with impunity. This flipped the entire ‘safe cigarette’ concept on its head, focusing attention away from prevention and toward the possibility of a cure. I always loved the irresistible implausibility of this line of reasoning, a very clever way for a very dumb teenager to neatly sever the smoking–cancer link, turning their far-off health trouble into a problem for somebody smarter than them to solve in good time.

Every generation of smokers has believed that their cigarettes would turn out to be the harmless ones. The tobacco industry has dangled the prospect of safe cigarettes before smokers for decades, the perfect lure to encourage would-be quitters to stick at it until their vice is reconfigured into a virtue. From filters (1911) to ‘toasted’ tobacco (1917), ‘soothing’ menthols (1930s) to low-tar blends (1950s), low nicotine ‘lights’ (1970s) to fire-retardant paper (2000s), every supposed innovation has been birthed with the claim that, finally, the most dangerous part of the cigarette has been engineered away.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #31. Get your copy here.

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a Melbourne-based writer and designer. He is the co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely and was the inaugural director of the Digital Writers’ Festival.