Thursday, April 22, 2010

Belshaw's world - socials gone in a puff of smoke

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 14 April 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

While in Armidale, I heard that there was a move to cut out smoking in outdoor eating areas such as the Mall.

I guess it depends on what you want.

If you want a smoke free environment, please do so. If you want to maximise your visitor numbers and their spend, don’t.

It’s not just that smokers go less, stay for shorter times and spend less. So do their non-smoking friends when accompanied by smokers.

This does not mean that a particular venue should not go smoke free. That’s a commercial judgement. Other things being equal, the venue may attract more non-smoking customers, thus offsetting the loss of smoke revenue.

If all venues go smoke free, overall revenue declines.

At a personal level, one of the reasons that I find it so hard to give up smoking beyond the fact that I don’t like to be told what to do, lies in its association with many happy memories.

Smoking is deeply embedded in Australia’s social history.

I wonder how many Australians remember the term smoke social? I was reminded of it because I came across references to it in material that I was reading a little while ago.

This was a term applied to organised social gatherings, often but not always dinners.

They were held as celebrations, as organisation get to togethers, even fund raisers covering a wide range of activities. Sometimes the smoke social was added to another activity, such as annual general meeting and smoke social.

I could not find a history of smoke socials. However, a web search suggests that the term was strongly Australian, although it was also used in New Zealand. I could not see any references outside these two countries.

The earliest references I could find dated to the 1890s, the latest references to the 1940s. It seems to have vanished during the Second World War.

The term indicates the importance of smoking as a social activity. Its decline well in advance of the modern anti-smoking movement is an indication of social change and especially growing wealth.

Even before the imposition of current taxes on tobacco products, smoking was expensive.

In earlier days, the big cost lay not just in the tobacco, but in the cost of matches. Australians simply could not afford to smoke a lot.

There were also problems with smoking at work. This was due not so much to work rules although these did exist, but to the fact that so much labour was physical. You couldn’t work and smoke at the same time. Smoking was done in breaks.

In the period immediately after the Second World War there was more money, while clerical work expanded. Smoking did too.

Actually, smokers themselves must bear some of the blame for some of the anti-smoking campaigns.

Growing up, I was taught to ask if the people I was with minded if I smoked. This was a matter of common politeness to non-smokers. During the 1950s, smoking came to be seen as a right, regardless of the views of others.

Smoking also came to be seen as a sign of the modern woman.

Smoking was very much a male activity. Women did not smoke in public.

In my father’s dairies, there is an entry recording his shock as a young man at seeing a woman smoke on the Ashburton (New Zealand) railway station.

Smoking by women became a sign of the modern woman, a rejection of female stereotypes.

There were special cigarettes for women. Multiple coloured Sobranies are an example.

Woman smoke and drank like men. I’m not sure much has actually changed here, beyond the form of expression!

Smoke socials have vanished, but the period survives in the continued use in Australia and New Zealand of the term smoke-oh or smoko to describe a work break. This term, too, seems to date to the 1890s.

Smoke-oh itself has been in decline, killed not by the anti-smoking movement, but by the fact that so few of us now take structured work breaks. We no longer have the time.

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