It's time to come out. I have been living a lie for more than a year now and feel I have to come clean. During the past 12 months not a single cigarette has made its way between my lips. And it's not that I want to sanctimoniously preach to all those who have tried and failed to quit. In fact, it's anything but. And here's the rub - shhhhh! - it's been a secret. I really didn't want any of my avid smoking friends to know. So I have remained isolated and furtive in an attempt to be . . . a secret non-smoker.
Only a paltry 50,000 out of an estimated two million quitters at the turn of the millennium are still on course. On this evidence, smokers have a one in 40 chance of giving up.
So it was a real piece of luck because on that night it was my 40th attempt. I was on a promise. As Big Ben struck for the year 2000, I exhaled, stubbed out, and said goodbye to a very old friend. "I love you," I mumbled, while sipping my millennium champagne. Who was I to rely on now?
I started smoking Dunhill while at college. I liked the colour of the pack, and thought it gave me an added level of sophistication. At that stage I thought it was just for fun. But when John Player Special released an all-black packet that was 20p cheaper, I immediately swapped allegiance. By then I was using my addiction in many positive ways. I made an entire coffee table from used packets. It didn't take long and I felt encouraged as I glued each new section in place. I took still-life photographs of backlit empty packs, next to a old shoe. It was supposed to mean something, but I can't remember what now.
By the time I'd left college, I knew it was impossible to stop without some effort, so I changed to a low-tar brand. And I knew I was in trouble when many a time I desperately searched for fag butts in the ash tray at the end of an evening.
But what was going to replace the void left if I did quit? What else can you light, inhale, flick, exhale? It occupies your hands, your mind and provides solace and security when all else fails. And all the while smokers have each other to bolster themselves.
Smokers notoriously want quitters to fall back into their old ways. And as many of my friends smoked I knew better than to admit to a campaign of denial. So I took a vow not to reveal my decision to stop. I claimed a bad cold or irritating cough was the reason I was having a "short break" from fags. (Which was not actually that untrue, as two weeks into the regime, I developed a hacking splutter that lasted a month.)
As time went on my secret became more difficult to deal with. So I became a master at non-smoking excuses. As the dinner party between -courses ciggies appeared, I would nip out of the room on some arbitrary excuse, or wave my hand to indicate I was still eating. A favourite was a short cough immediately followed by mumbling: "Not just now, thanks."
Why carry on with this ridiculous charade? Well smokers have a special camaraderie. It's like a club, a perfect relationship that can only be acquired between people who understand. Demand a smoker gives up and they will immediately take out a Silk Cut to blow smoke in your face. Smokers are only too happy to flaunt their habit, after all it's legal, rebellious and can be justified by providing the government with a huge income.
And more importantly how could I turn my back on the smokers' clan? The allure, fascination and desire to smoke is entwined with the need to be part of the fag fraternity. All those clandestine meetings, the conspiratorial whispers as the packet is slowly stripped of its cellophane cover; and the snort at non-smokers' efforts to make us stop. The smokers' clan is a powerful group, attack it and it redoubles its efforts to fight back. Kick the addicts and they bounce straight back up, cigarettes blazing. Ban us from the kitchen, and we move to the bathroom; ban us from the hall, we traipse into the garden; evict us from the office, and we happily pollute the street.
It was always us against the rest of the world - especially all those holier-than-thou do gooders. Go into a bar and what do you see - row upon row of smokers, laughing, joking and sharing. Watch the elegant French ladies on the beach and they come with a smoking stick in hand. But enter the pious world of west-coast anal America and they will shoot on sight if you so much as move a hand to your inside pocket. Get a life, we'd snigger.
And that is where a smokers' dilemma really does kick in, as we all know the real truth. It is a killer, and the life at risk is ours. Every year, around this time, we endure those appalling smoking statistics. The personal account of lung disease; the horrifying number of related premature deaths; the deep financial expense.
Yet all these shock-horror images and powerful words hold many back not a jot. Millions choose to carry on smoking despite the damning evidence. And the reasons for doing so are far more complex than addiction to nicotine.
But one year on, as I greeted 2001 it dawned on me: I am still surrounded by the same people as before, and that ever-present monkey on my back has gone. It's good not to live with the sub-conscious fear of some appalling illness. It's good not to have to slap my pockets to ensure the fags and matches are there, and it's good not to have to clear away the remains of a night's inhalation.
And I don't care who knows anymore.