The new social outcasts

The new social outcasts

Call it smoke screen redefined, if you will. The wall that shuts cigarette smokers off the rest is fast gathering blocks. A combination of statutory curbs and aggressive awareness campaigns — though enforcement of the curbs continues to fall well short — has clamped a rather unflattering tag on urban India’s smokers. On the other side of the ban on public smoking is a commune of social outcasts: Smokers, who are not welcome. At the workplace, pubs, restaurants and family parties, ‘the others’ are driving the message in, hard and clear. Stub out or get out.

The jury is still out over the definition of ‘public places’ but the ban is rearranging social manner. While the non-smokers are, finally, done with conversations through smoke rings and are settling down with a sigh, life is hard and harried on the smoky side. “It’s a dampener, really. More than the awkwardness in dragging yourself out for a smoke every 30 or 40 minutes, it’s the breaks in conversation that kill the company. Personally, it has been doubly tough because I’ve always needed cigarettes to go with alcohol. With the ban on, I’ve cut down on my drinks out and am sticking to get-togethers at home,” says Suresh R, an IT consultant.

Suresh has been puffing out a pack and plus over the past 13 years — if you count out an aborted month-long abstinence last year — and the ban hasn’t quite led him to kick the butt. “Far from it… I rarely smoked at home. Now, it’s two before dinner and two after,” he says.

Business networking, high-tea confabs and even the stress-buster cigarette break with colleagues are not the same any more, points out Prabhat Kumar, sales executive with a Bangalore-based realty agency. Kumar has always had his band of colleagues to gather around over a smoke and banter, all by the office stairs. Now, it takes a trip to the terrace of the 10-storey building. “We get the looks from people who walk up and down the stairs. True, we used to get those looks earlier as well but now, they come with a ‘statutory’ scowl that reminds us of the ban,” Kumar sums it up with a chuckle. He has cut down heavily on his cigarettes and doesn’t go beyond five a day. “It used to be around 20 but now you need to find time off to go up and smoke. After a point, strangely, you realise that you are not that desperate either,” says Kumar.

Non-smokers, like businessman Girish Bhat, would say that’s the whole point. “I used to smoke and I feel that many tend to assume, out of habit, that they can’t do without it. If a ban, however badly implemented, can lead some of them out of the assumption, it’s welcome,” says Bhat. He is among those who believe that you can live with the inconvenience in finding space to smoke, when viewed against the perils of passive smoking.

Managers of eateries, bars and pubs have bucked up after the ban and say that the impact has been marginal. Though hotels have lost clients who drop in only with cigarettes, they’ve also clocked a rise in the number of family and female clients.
According to Hassan, manager of a restaurant on HAL Airport Road in Bangalore, there has been a downswing on the ‘casual’ crowd of travelling executives and employees in offices that dot the busy road. “Many of them have stopped coming after having been pointed out about our reservation on smoking within the restaurant. Earlier, they used to hang around over a tea or coffee and smoke for hours together. That’s not happening anymore but on the other side, we also have families coming in larger numbers,” says Hassan.

The impact has been larger on bars and pubs, according to Lewis, who serves at a high-end pub in Koramangala. “There are instructions to keep a close watch on the guests. If someone tries to light up, we ask them to have the smoke out and return. We don’t keep track of customers but I can say that student groups who are regulars here are not regular anymore. They feel that during long sessions, recurring cigarette breaks are not quite on,” says Lewis. The smoker watch, though, is not on at the roadside wine shops across the city. Walk in and you still find men bond over a puff. Lewis points out that compliance is hard to come by and that though private companies have come forward in implementing the government’s ban, the overall enforcement has been far from stringent.

Harikrishnan*, a Plus Two student, doesn’t buy the argument behind the ban and goes back to the smoker’s stock logic: What about a ban on cigarette sale instead? “Most of us smoke in groups and half the time, it’s about the company. Now, there is an additional step to the whole thing… first, we have to find a place to smoke. It’s no longer casual. It’s a process,” reasons Hari. He sees the emergence of trends like cigar bars and exclusive smoking rooms. But at 17, he says, all he needs is good company and conversation over five or six cigarettes a day. The ban’s effect? Cut-down, by a half, on the daily puff count.

The ban has translated into dents in profits for the traders as well. Selling around 90 to 100 packs of 20s a day, Wasim — a trader in J P Nagar — has seen a post-ban dip by around 60 packs a day.

Sandhya, an advertising professional, sees the brighter side of the ban and is not sulking over her cut-down. It’s about conditioning, she asserts. “When we are out in large groups, the smokers go out for their sessions. Initially, I used to tag along but after a while, it started to become a pain. It doesn’t help when most of the time you are the only female smoker in the group. These days, I stay back with the non-smokers,” she says.

As this goes to print, smokers across the country are also bracing for some in-the-face treatment to drift out of the habit: Pictorial warnings on tobacco products, from May 31.
The tobacco industry has already expressed concerns over the possibilities: One, a potential surge in demand for smuggled cigarettes that come without these warnings. The real deal, though, will be in finding out if it works in keeping the smoker off. Deepthi Madan, a management student, feels that the scope is limited. “These measures have definitely shown results but only just. I have smoker friends who sit together and discuss the dangers of smoking, including cancer, over a smoke. If huge, ghastly images of rotten gums and teeth can’t gross them out, I don’t think little icons on a cigarette pack can. Further, all smokers don’t buy them in packs,” she says.

(* Some names have been changed)


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