These fashion aristos puffing like yobs on a sink estate should read the tragic story of my mother
08:54 GMT, 5 July 2012
Our tiny village on the edge of the Cotswolds was crawling with security guards this weekend. Big, burly men all clad in black, hunched over their radios — even down the country footpath where I walk my dog.
They were there to protect the privacy of rock royalty from the photographers perched on stepladders lining the streets, their long lenses straining for a shot of Jade Jagger as she married her DJ boyfriend Adrian Fillary in the company of showbiz family and model friends.
The celebrity couple tied the knot at Aynhoe Park, the stately home that lends its name to the village where I live.
From left: Christian Louboutin, Elizabeth Jagger and Kate Moss
And yet all the effort and expense were thwarted by the guests, whose desire for a cigarette drove them out from the confines of the grand house into the summer drizzle — and the gaze of the waiting paparazzi.
This is the reason that we were able to see pictures of the likes of Kate Moss, Jerry Hall, her daughter Elizabeth Jagger and shoe designer Christian Louboutin huddled together, puffing away.
Funny in one sense that all that money can’t buy control of a craving that unites these infinitely privileged people with the most hard-up single mum on a sink estate.
But for me it was intensely sad because I saw my mother die from lung cancer — and I know how those images of the kings and queens of cool will help convince thousands of youngster to try their first fag.
For many it will mark the start of a lifelong addiction that, according to some doctors I have interviewed, is more difficult to quit than heroin.
I’ve seen its intensity first-hand on the lung cancer ward in Liverpool where I spent many hours from the autumn of 2003, when my mother was diagnosed, until her death 15 months later. The cancer rapidly turned this vibrant, active woman, very much the centre of our family, into an anxious shadow struggling for breath.
Some images will haunt me for ever. Like the afternoon I watched a patient in his early 30s dragging his feet as he inched his way slowly off the ward.
He was painfully thin, his ankles swollen, a tell-tale sign that his young heart was failing under the onslaught of this disease.
In his left hand he carried a jar attached to a long tube which disappeared into an incision in his back. The jar contained malignant purple fluid being drained from his chest.
The man was making for an area near the lifts where he could lean out of the open window and draw on a fag, almost to his last breath.
Family loss: Winifred and her vibrant mother
Another startling recollection is of arriving at the hospital at dawn one morning. I witnessed a procession of skeletal figures clad in night clothes, some in wheelchairs, heading out in the cold morning air to a smoking shelter, drawing meagre comfort from a habit that was quite literally killing them. Such is the alarmingly tight grip of addiction to tobacco.
My mother never smoked, but her dad did from his teenage years. So all through her infancy and childhood she was breathing in his second-hand fumes. She was scared of cancer all her life, and it seems so cruel that of all the different types it was lung cancer that struck her.
There was an excuse for smoking when my grandfather started doing it, when the link between cigarettes and cancer was still unknown. Not so today, when the fact that cigarettes cause cancer has been established for more than 60 years.
We know more than any generation that’s gone before us about the dangers of cigarettes — that nine out of ten lung cancer patients are smokers; that lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer, taking more lives than breast and bowel cancer put together; that every day 62 people in the UK die from this largely avoidable disease.
When they are questioned in surveys, the vast majority of today’s smokers say they want to stop. But quitting is not all down to willpower; brain chemistry plays a much bigger role, according to Professor Robert West, of University College London, one of the world’s leading authorities on this subject.
Professor West explained how, at the very first puff on a cigarette, the body rapidly absorbs nicotine. But only in some people does the nicotine cause the pleasure chemical dopamine to be released in the brain, creating what is called a ‘reward response’. And because reward response to cigarettes varies in its intensity, depending on individual brain chemistry, some people need more willpower than others to quit.
Of course, no one would need to quit if no one started smoking. But start we do because smoking is still regarded by the young as a rite of passage into adulthood.
And that is due largely to our culture, where glamorous nicotine addicts — such as those gathered at Jade Jagger’s wedding — help promote smoking as a rebellious gesture of defiance in the face of boring warnings about how to live your life.
Whether or not that first drag leads to a lifetime of smoking depends largely on whether you are a winner or loser in the brain chemical lottery of life. Words of warning like mine are worthless in the face of such influential images. As Professor West points out: ‘Teenagers see themselves as immortal, and anyway, they don’t value life beyond a certain age.
‘Fear of premature death does not deter them. With teenagers, we may have to concentrate on messages about image. To put it crudely, we have to persuade them smoking is something only losers do.’
I’d love to say Jerry Hall, cigarette in hand at Jade’s wedding, looked like a sad loser. But for many of today’s young people she’ll have seemed every bit as alluring as another famous beauty, Lauren Bacall, did in her first film, To Have And Have Not in 1944, when she drawled in Humphrey Bogart’s direction: ‘Anybody got a match’
Both images are repulsive to me, because of my experience. Jerry Hall reminds me of the actor Yul Brynner who, throughout his life, was photographed cigarette in hand. He reportedly laughed off his doctor’s warnings, declaring himself a super-fit lion of a man.
In 1985, before his death from lung cancer, he gave an interview, warning: ‘Whatever you do, don’t smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn’t be talking about cancer.’
It’s because these warnings don’t work that one in ten professionals and four in ten unskilled workers are still smoking these days. It’s why researchers are pinning their hopes on a new anti-smoking vaccine — something that would immunise us against nicotine so that we gain no pleasure from it.
Just last week it was reported that scientists at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York had developed a jab that prevents nicotine entering the brains of mice. But it will take years to perfect as a human therapy — if it ever works for us.
If it did, there’d be an outcry from the smoking lobby, with campaigners insisting on their rights to be allowed to weigh up the pleasure and pain to be had from smoking and to make the choice for themselves.
The jab could be offered to children at school, with parental consent. I’d agree to it for my only son Tony, now aged 12, without a moment’s hesitation because even though I don’t have the brain chemistry for smoking, his dad does. My husband Roger smoked from his teens until his 40s — 30 a day. I’d like to spare Tony the ravages of that.
Looking at those pictures of Jade’s wedding you can see how her half-sister Elizabeth inherited Jerry Hall’s smoking genes, perhaps the few dud ones in a pretty remarkable set.
I wonder, will they one day choose the anti-smoking vaccine for their children and grandchildren Sadly, I think we can already guess the answer to that.