I attended a wedding last night where i was placed at the “smoker’s table” — it wasn’t named as such, but after the meal, when a few of us asked the others whether they would mind if they smoked, we all realized that we all were smokers, either of cigarettes or of cigars.

This realization led us to a topic of conversation — how strict are the anti-smoking laws in our respective countries. The person sitting next to me was from India, and i was quite surprised to hear that smoking in public places is banned, even in open air, or along the street. You aren’t allowed to walk your dog and smoke. The only public places where smoking is allowed is in the “old men’s clubs” — throwbacks to the British Empire where posh and elite stratas of society congregate. It’s at these clubs where cigar smoking remains a very popular activity; Indians also prefer to entertain guests at home, and that’s another place where cigars are very often smoked.

Most of the people at the table had also travelled to the US or the UK/Europe in recent times, and we all lamented the increasingly tightening laws in place against smoking. In Australia, the laws are similar, and even the current wave of legislation against tobacco products’ packaging is further eroding the rights of smokers. A tyranny of the majority, the oppression of a nanny state.

In comparison, Malaysia is a bit of a smoker’s heaven — most decent restaurants (and all the indecent ones) have clearly marked smoking areas where any form of tobacco smoking is allowed. Even as this is true, i commented to everyone last night i still ask the tables around me whether they would mind if i lit a cigar, since the aroma of a cigar differs greatly to that of a cigarette. And in Malaysia, any open public space like a park or the sidewalk is an open license to light up. Just don’t go blowing your smoke into passerby’s faces, and you’ll be alright.

We gave the topic a lot of discussion, a strangely semi-serious topic of conversation at a wedding. But we all agreed that one of the reasons why smoking is such an easy target of regulation and excessive taxation is because the PR campaign against it has been fantastic (we were all media-type people, the bride, our friend, works in an ad agency). Who can deny the pictures of lung/throat/mouth cancers pasted all across newspapers, TV, cinemas and cyberspace. The Government-sponsored campaigns against smoking. The demonization of tobacco, and the classification of its taxation as “sin taxes”. Magnificent anti-smoking PR — pervasive, consistent and designed to prey upon human guilt (“oh think of the children”).

The other point i raised is the apologetic nature smokers have towards the exercise of their rights. In the below ground lobby of the building i work in is an area where smokers congregate for a puff; a couple of standing ashtrays are conveniently placed for this purpose. But whenever someone (who is just passing through) walks by, i’ve noticed that everyone discretely tries to hide their cigarette, and some have a look of ashamed guilt on their faces. As though they are being caught doing something wrong. Whenever the issue of tobacco taxes is brought up each year in the annual national budget in Parliament, and the taxes are raised, not a single protest can be heard, even from MPs who themselves smoke like chimneys, for fear of looking anti anti-smoking. Even when my staff come to me and ask for a 5 minute smoke break after a tense couple of hours in the office, they always start with, “Sorry, boss, can i go for a smoke break?”

This isn’t kindergarten. If you don’t need my permission to go to the toilet, or grab a bit to eat because you’re hungry, you don’t need my permission to go for a smoke (as long as you’re not tardy about it, and certainly as long as it doesn’t affect your overall duties).

But the perception amongst smokers ourselves, that we should be sorry, that smoking is a sin, that we need to apologize for lighting up a cigarette, even in designated smoking areas — almost makes the anti-smoking lobby blameless for the gradual eradication of a smoker’s right. Smokers themselves believe that they are wrong.

Obesity kills more than 112,000 Americans each year. And yet the campaign against unhealthy foods is where? Non-existent almost. Where is the legislation against fat, against calories, against Baskin Robbins, against fatty wagyu steaks, against bacon?? Why are there not any posters being plastered on cans of Coke, “Drinking this will kill you”. Where is the sin tax against sugar, lard and coconut oil? Rules that say only organic, farm fresh food can be served to our children?

An unreasonable comparison? I think not. Especially considering that developing countries such as Malaysia, obesity is on the rise, and even if obesity doesn’t kill you, it will does lead to serious health problems that will affect the productivity and lifelihood of the nation. Replace the word “obesity” with “smoking” in this last paragraph, and you will see that the differences are not as different as you may think.

Moderation and balance is the key, i say. Eat too much, die young. Eat too little, and die from malnutrition. Smoke too much, and die young. Smoke (or eat) as you wish, but balance it out with a good cardio work out every so often. Lead a balanced lifestyle, live the life you want.