When the news broke that Singapore will be raising the legal smoking age to 21, I thought, “Oh, that can only be a good thing.”
Yet as I found myself reminiscing about being an 18, 19, then 20 year-old smoker, I couldn’t help being overcome by a sudden nostalgia. Before I knew it, this was replaced by sadness. Sadness at the fact that an entire generation of Singaporeans might never get to experience all the undeniably good things that come with being a smoker in your late teens.
I know this sounds like I’m encouraging people to pick up smoking—which I’m not. So bear with me.
Sometime during my A levels, school stopped making sense. I wanted nothing more than to be an adult, doing things more important than sitting in a classroom studying for yet another exam I’d been told would decide my future. I wanted so badly to rebel that I did it in the most predictable way possible.
I picked up smoking.
On hindsight, it was such a lame thing to cling to for consolation. But it calmed me down, and if not for cigarettes, I’m pretty sure I would have done something a lot worse. For a lot of smokers, their stories begin in a similar way.
I hid the habit from friends and family, but when NS came around, all of a sudden, everyone smoked. It was like I’d come home to my second family.
All smokers will testify to this fact. When it comes to smoking, we all have more good memories than bad. And when you’re first learning to be an adult, social interactions can be both difficult and awkward.
In these times of need, cigarettes help pave the way for bonding between strangers. It becomes how you break the ice at the smoking areas outside clubs or during a break at your part-time gig. I had at least 3 friends who found their first romantic partners in these shared moments.
Back then, I overheard a joke about how conflicts don’t get resolved in boardrooms. They get resolved at the smoking corner. And I suspect that hasn’t really changed.
Whenever there was a need to discuss sensitive things or a misunderstanding needed to be resolved, we went for a smoke. From our army enciks to friends who wanted to confide, cigarettes gave us permission to be honest and made it easier for us to come clean.
Even now, having a smoke is the only thing I can think of that always functions as an open invitation. If you’re going for a cigarette and you know someone else who smokes, it’s your duty to ask that person along. It’s just good manners.
But what I always relished from those days was the moment that comes at the end of a long night. After you’ve knocked back 6 beer towers and a messy supper of curry rice, you arrive at a point where everyone acknowledges that it’s time to go home.
Eventually, someone says, “Ok, last smoke, then we go.”
A contented silence always followed, as everyone would take long, slow drags on their cigarettes, no one feeling the need to say anything. It was the only possible finale to a good time.
The thing is, some of us enjoy night caps or goodnight kisses, while some of us have last cigarettes. Today, I don’t smoke anymore. Yet I regret quitting more than I do ever picking it up. It’s one of those irrational things. When I have my morning coffee, it still feels strange to have it unaccompanied by a smoke.
More than anything, I still think of that one night so long ago when I stood at my room window, inhaling tar, nicotine, and those 400 other toxic chemicals, and realising that I needed to end the relationship I was in.
Was it a cigarette that my 20 year-old self needed to make that decision? Maybe not. But I like to believe it was. I couldn’t sleep that night, and so I had a smoke and came to those conclusions. For anyone who’s ever been lonely, cigarettes have never disappointed as the perfect companion; silent, yet insightful at the same time.
Am I romanticising smoking? Of course I am. But what I’m not doing is glorifying it.
In many ways, this is what being young has always been about—doing things you don’t fully understand, not giving a shit about consequences, and believing you’re invincible. Many go on smoking after this phase of their lives while others, like me, quit at some point.
Conversations with strangers, moments of intimacy that ignite with eye contact as you light the cigarette of a girl you just met, or even learning to be alone with your thoughts. I happen to think that these are all beautiful things.
If it takes a cigarette to make them happen, why not?
And while a lot of this sounds like stuff that smokers in their 30s, 40s and beyond still do, cigarettes are still inextricably linked to my (and our) “first times” for all these things. If not for smoking all those cigarettes at that particular time in my life, many of these memories would not have been made, and I wouldn’t be who I am today.
To me at least, that’s a terrifying thought.