Culture

Smoke Break

Culture

Smokers are the last nice people online

Taking a cigarette break on the smoking internet.

The online people-who-love-to-smoke community is one of the most supportive and kindly corners of the internet I have ever encountered, especially for a group entirely preoccupied with the abetting of a habit that is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide. I’m not sure if this is a particularly illuminating observation, whether it says something profoundly terrible about humanity and where it is headed, or whether this is something we should find solace in. I change my mind about it a lot.

There is a website I love called airportsmokers.com. It advertises itself as “the original airport smoking website,” and it does exactly what it says it does: it tells its visitors what airports they can smoke in, and under what sort of conditions. It offers a ranking system, visually represented by a little row of cigarettes: 1/10 for an airport where you can’t smoke anywhere, even you’re on a 12-hour layover and you are about to chew your own sleeves off; 10/10 for an airport where you can smoke two cigarettes at once in the queue for passport control. My personal favorite ranking is in the 8-to-9 cigarette range: “Excessive amount of smoking areas before and after security and sometimes at baggage reclaim.” “Excessive.” How many smoking areas would there have to be in an airport before a hardcore smoker looked around and thought, “This is too many, even for me”?

Airportsmokers.com is unbelievably thorough: among the many things it has taught me is how many airports there are in this world. Given the vast scope of its informative ambition, and the fact that I only came across it six months ago when trying to figure out if I could smoke in Doha airport, I have not been able to look at the ranking for every single airport listed, but I am fairly certain that no airport has achieved a ranking of 10/10 cigarettes. How could it? Even if an airport does have a place to smoke, or at least one that you don’t have to pay to get into, that place is invariably a disgusting and sad reminder of what sort of shabby treatment you will put up with if you are addicted to cigarettes. At very, very best, what you will get is a glass box near a boarding gate, televisions mounted to the wall broadcasting the latest in international bad news, tired people in track pants leaning against the wall because the swivel chairs are broken, and ashtrays that are emptied once every six months. No attempt is made to make these places comfortable, because no attempt is needed. Smokers are not in a position to make any demands.

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At the top of the home page of airportsmokers.com, in bold, is the insistence that “we are not second class travellers!!!” This is an obvious untruth, and airportsmokers.com knows it. The whole reason that the site exists is that smokers are absolutely second class travellers, and the only way they will survive is if they stick together.

A man is seen smoking a cigarette on a hammock at the 2017 Woodstock Festival Poland on August 4, 2017 in Kostrzyn, Poland.

A man is seen smoking a cigarette on a hammock at the 2017 Woodstock Festival Poland on August 4, 2017 in Kostrzyn, Poland.

According to Mark Walmsley, the very nice man who runs it and who answered my questions with promptness and patience, the site is updated almost daily with feedback provided by its many users. Stuff like this (on the conditions on the ground in Sydney airport): “T1 terminal does indeed have a smoking area, its [sic] an outside area in the far left hand corner as you enter from the driveway in departures near the Coffee Club. It is before security. Feedback provided by Ray W. on the 11th April 2017.” Thank you, Ray. And thank you to Chris G, who has sweetly uploaded some photos of the smoking facilities at Charles de Gaulle, and to Chris M reporting from Manila International Airport (“troubling news: there is now no indoor smoking at all in Terminal 2.”) Thank you to the anonymous person who sent a photo of a chilled-out bald man smoking on a metal chair at Nadi International in Fiji (which still, by the way, gets a ranking of only 1/10 cigarettes). We are grateful to G.M., who reports that a sign has been erected at Zagreb International, which promises that “smoking cabins” are coming soon.

There is so much feedback, and while some of it is delivered in an offputtingly aggrieved tone, the vast majority of it is kind, encouraging, and helpful without expectation of reward. When I asked him what prompted the creation of airportsmokers.com, Walmsley told me that he started the site after being stuck for 12 hours without a cigarette in Dublin Airport, “only to find out later that it had an outdoor smoking area past security,” where he could have smoked like a train, if there had been a website to inform him that it existed. Most airport websites, he said, do not publish this kind of information, and so airportsmokers.com was born. It receives 5,000 unique visitors every day. Walmsley also told me that he does not make money off his website, and I believe him. He seems genuinely to be motivated by a desire to help.

A smoker stands in front of a construction hoarding featuring cloud and sky patterns, on July 31, 2017, in Covent Garden, London, England.

A smoker stands in front of a construction hoarding featuring cloud and sky patterns, on July 31, 2017, in Covent Garden, London, England.

The people of airportsmokers.com look out for each other because they need to, but also because they want to. I have spent a long, long time on airportsmokers.com, and I haven’t seen any information that is not directly related to where and how a person can smoke their head off at an airport. The internet in general feels like a place for people to hate each other and make everything worse, but airportsmokers.com is a cheering exception to this. The meanest thing I could find was this: “Helping the non-smoker: The Website received its first anti-smoking rants on the 25th August 2017. The sender was unable to use paragraphs and to be honest, it was too much of a hassle to read. So for those who wish to send rants, send them somewhere else as they will go unread.”

The people of airportsmokers.com look out for each other because they need to, but also because they want to.

This air of solidarity, of warm-hearted acceptance of the fact that we are all in this together, extends beyond airportsmokers.com to all corners of the smoking internet, including the designated smoking area on reddit. The first rule on r/Cigarettes is “Be nice,” and the banner declares, “Come take a smoke break with us.” It is clearly a place for kickin’ back. The first rule on r/Horses, just for contrast, is “Do not post questions about your horses that could significantly affect their health. Call a vet.” Like airportsmokers.com, the overall tone on r/Cigarettes can very occasionally veer into the aggrieved or harassed-seeming: “Don’t berate others for what they’re smoking, what they bought, or for smoking in general. This is not the place to tell people smoking is bad for them. We know.” In general, however, people are there to have a good time, and to write posts titled stuff like “Nothing like a red after an exam.” “Best part of the day.” “After Harvey, it's gotten kinda chilly in Houston (for September) and I switched to menthols while it's cool out.” “What do you guys think about not inhaling?” “Cigs aren’t for everyone.”

A man smokes as Sauvignon Blanc grapes are harvested for Bar-Maor Winery at daybreak on July 30, 2017 in Givat Nili in northern Israel.

A man smokes as Sauvignon Blanc grapes are harvested for Bar-Maor Winery at daybreak on July 30, 2017 in Givat Nili in northern Israel.

Cigs, it is true, are not for everyone. They are hardly for anyone, anymore, and this is perhaps the reason why everyone on cigarette internet is so nice to each other – they are bound by a shared sense of shame and persecution. Even the guys doing their cigarette reviews on YouTube attract almost no negative attention at all, even as they seem to open themselves wide open to this possibility. A man wearing wraparound sunglasses in his car, giving his not inconsiderable viewership what it has asked for, which in this case is the most rigorous and lengthy description of what it is like to smoke a Newport Menthol, beginning with what the box feels like in his hand, to how it packs (he has heard that Newports pack harder than other cigarettes, and they do — when he opens the box it is clear that he has packed the shit out of them), to the quality of the plastic seal which closes the box, to how it burns, to how it looks when it burns, to the actual thoughtful and vivid description of what it tastes like (strong, full-bodied, definitely heavy menthol resulting in a mouth that is kind of numb and gummy, slight sulphur taste which is not as gross as it could be).

There are many cigarette reviews on YouTube. A lot of them (all of them, if I am honest), are mesmerizingly odd. Some of the people doing them make me feel sad, and worried about their quality of life or their undoubtedly troubled past. They are a bit twitchy and strange, making wild claims about the government’s suppression of the free circulation of cigarettes throughout Europe. There is a guy who moves his mouth around in a gasping way for about five seconds before he speaks, so that he looks as if he has been badly dubbed. He sits in a way that makes him look he doesn’t have a skeleton, and his upper arms have a pallor that make me feel like he is dead. Nearly all of them are unusual in a way you would need to text your friends about: “Met a guy who loves smoking too much. A strange man.” You wonder how these people will be robust enough to face the barrage of abuse that will surely be coming their way in the comments section. Surely just person after person going “Fuck, you are so weird.” Just: “There is truly no reason for you to be doing this.” “What kind of life is this.” But no. Nothing. Just stuff like “Great video, dude!” or “Disgusting, ignorant health government. Valuing health more than right and wrong and enforcing it blindly... Other than that great review and better screen resolution!” “Keep it up!!!”

There is, of course, some shadowy and sinister undergrowth in even this sunny garden. For instance, a site called Smoking From All Sides. It is as baldly plain in design as airportsmokers.com, and claims simply to provide links to “all perspectives of smoking.” There are links to anti-smoking groups, to “commentary” about smoking, and to a “television-style” documentary called “Why Do People Smoke?” So far, so relaxing, but then obviously it turns out to be about things of a sexual nature in a way that jars with the wholesome energy of the wider community. You click on a link called “smoking glamour,” and suddenly there are all these ads for “smoking erotica,” pictures of hard-faced ladies making out with their cigarettes, and another link called “Female Celebrity Smoking List,” which is somehow even more pervert-y than the smoking porn.

Still though, the site could be so much worse. And again, it does exactly what it says it does: I now have more perspectives on smoking than I did before. It was probably only trying to help.

Rosa Lyster is a writer in Cape Town.