Ah, Stoptober. The month in every year that bleeds seamlessly into Movember. When we can all forget about the ancient art of giving up smoking, and concentrate on growing moustaches for our prostates. Some might say that the government was misadvised in creating something like Stoptober in the first place. That perhaps having a reported 268,000 people desperately craving a fag for 28 days might cause more public health problems than it solves. That you might as well have "National Stop Taking Your Meds Week", or just broadcast the sound of screaming babies from the tannoy in every public place, Nicole Scherzinger's voice layered subtly but seductively in the mix, imploring you to “Do it. Do it... Do it.”
It doesn't take much clinical observation to note that smokers have always tended to drag themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking to get their angry fix from any 24-hour garage they can locate within a 20-mile radius, at whatever price is going. Anyone who has smoked for any length of time understands immediately where the mythological ground zero of addiction – the metaphorical “rock bottom” – is. It's catching a glimpse of yourself combing through a cold party ashtray at 3AM looking for something, anything, to take the pain away. After you've been there, it's far harder to see yourself as a cultivated person making a rational choice.
Never mind the tiny insanity-siren that goes off in your head every time you fork out eight quid for a pack. Rather than hoiking the price of fags in a way that might cause people to change their behaviour, a revenue-hungry Exchequer has inadvertently created a kind of boiled frog syndrome whereby each ensuing price hike stretches the insanity bubble without quite bursting it. Since the 90s, they've slowly forced every remaining smoker through the looking glass, to the point where your internal monologue can perform flik-flaks like: "Well why on Earth wouldn't you go and stand outside a club, without your coat for five minutes, on a night where the temperature’s below freezing? And what's actually wrong with taking a fistful of 5p coins into the cornershop the week before payday? You've got to get rid of them somehow..."
Unfortunately, the mythology of rock bottom doesn't really apply to smoking, because smokers don't tend to die in bare bedsits in Whalley Range in their late twenties. Or if they do, it's because they really smoked an awful lot. On the whole, they tend to die in NHS wards, smacked up on opiates, in their mid-sixties. And even now, this is still the lens through which the nannies of the state invite us to view this little problem we have. It's seldom the more subtle stuff: that you will get sick more, have less energy and spend a lot of time hunched in doorways having to slightly ignore the people who are coming through those doorways, while at the same time projecting a kind of demob happy insouciance, because really everyone else should be jealous – yeah, jealous – because you're getting a break from work that their chemical weaknesses don't entitle them to.
It's more often the highly apocalyptic yet deeply distant tomorrow. Like that moustachioed hipster with the throat cancer who adorns one in five packs. Bad luck that guy, but ya know: he was very 2003 at the best of times. He's not like you or I. He's self-evidently much dumber. He got throat cancer, for a start. Idiot.
For a generation that can't even imagine itself having a mortgage or a nuclear bunker, the idea of dialling forward to a time in the future where they'll need to be irradiated from within is just one of a dozen futures they don't want to think about.
Stoptober may not succeed on its primary effect of stopping people smoking. But however long it goes on for, it will continue to serve an important social purpose in reminding us that XX percent of the population remain addicted to a drug that is slowly killing them. In that way, it will instantly remind us of just how terrifyingly irrational and self-justifying we are as a species.
Statistics we've had lying around for 40 years tell us that cigarettes are still shaving an average – an average – of ten years off our lifespan. But unfortunately, human brains are not very good at absorbing statistics, and positively great at assuming our own exceptionalism. It's exactly the same reasoning that leads surveys to consistently show that 90 percent of all motorists consider themselves to be “a better than average driver”. It's the same impulse that leads 70 percent of new business owners to say that their chances of failure are “extremely small”, when we know that only 35 percent of new businesses survive the first two years. It's the same ape brain that buys lottery tickets but doesn't buckle its seatbelt.
This is not entirely a bad thing. After all, if everyone saw themselves as the piffling plot-points on a scatter-chart they are, no one would ever get out of bed in the morning. If we're going to live in mega-cities, we need to hang onto the unavoidable irrationality that says: “I am the only one who counts. I may be confronted with a sea of little human squiggles in a city of eight million people, but basically there is only one narrative here, one hero in this picture, and that is me. And heroes don't succumb to early onset emphysema in their forties.”
Without a massively inflated sense of self-importance, it'd be difficult to convince anyone to go down the shops and get a pint of milk, let alone spend years working on novels, songs, products, relationships, bridges or scientific experiments that, statistically-speaking, are almost certainly going to end in rejection, failure, disappointment, depression and the throwing of crockery. Humbling as it may be for a species possessed of nukes, we still need our irrationality. But maybe we also need to have our awareness raised of its existence sometimes.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes