We are the people who are looking over your shoulder while you talk to us. We have darting eyes and busy fingers. We sigh more than we used to and we drink too fast. Yes, we are the New-Year quitters and by this point it is really starting to hurt.
You see, ending a relationship with cigarettes is a lot like ending a relationship with a lover. It’s best if you don't see each other afterwards. But in London, visibility is a problem. Smokers are huddled at the entrance of every bar and at the exit of every tube station. They're stopping to light up in the street and they're sharing a joke as they sidle back into the office, smelling of that forbidden, smokey fruit. The point is, they're together, enjoying the bizarre fraternal alchemy that happens when a number of people agree to stand outside and not talk about cancer.
Quitters on the other hand have always been alone. That lady chewing gum on the next table could be one. The guy behind the bar could be one too – or he could just be quite fidgety. The urban quitter’s tragedy is that while temptation seems to waft ostentatiously around every street corner, our fellow habit-kickers are invisible. That short-tempered man waving a pen with tooth-marks on the lid is a probable but we can’t know for sure that he’s one of us.
Until the recent months that is, when quitters in the most developed tobacco markets have begun to go public in greater numbers. I spotted five in a bar last night. They’re coming out of their smokeless closets, nervously clutching their cigarette substitute. Now, for the first time, we can identify a fellow sufferer. We can draw strength from watching him desperately suck on his faintly embarrassing plastic impersonation of a cigarette. We can offer an eye-roll of solidarity as we both wonder – why does the tip glow green instead of orange?
Behind the scenes of course, the big four tobacco companies are trying to work out what their futures will look like. As their traditional models are choked by regulation, tax and pesky quitters like me, a developmental race is on to find the acceptable face of tobacco in the 21st century. Last month, British American Tobacco bought a British e-cigarette start-up (producers of tobacco-replacement inhaler cigarettes). And Philip Morris International will launch something non-combustible under the Marlboro label, we’re told, in under three years. BAT’s chief executive Nicandro Durante has confidently predicted the alternatives market will be worth $6bn (€4.4bn) to his company by 2020.
But that’s predicated on a very big “if”. You see, nicotine may be addictive, but cigarettes have sold in their billions because they used to be considered a perfect piece of product design. Audrey Hepburn would’ve looked silly puffing on a pipe. Tobacco pushers will only have a mass-market future if they offer me and my jittery January friends an alternative experience we just can't say no to. Then, maybe, I'll be able to rekindle the romance with someone new.
Dominic Reynolds is a presenter for Monocle 24.