Let me say first that I don't smoke, so I don't understand this. I do, however, find it a fascinating sociological phenomenon. No matter what the culture (I have personally witnessed this in six nations, and been told of it happening in many more; I have never been told that it doesn't happen), no matter how selfish the persons involved, it appears to hold true. The scene is this: If a smoker is smoking, and another person (unknown to the first) comes up and uses the Universal Passphrase, then then smoker is obligated (or perhaps universally willing) to hand over a cigarette, free of charge- and provide a light, if necessary.

There are, of course, conditions that must apply. They are:

  • The smokers typically must not know each other otherwise; if they do know each other, the exchange is governed by other rules, such as "hey, you owe me a beer, you bastard, you can't have one." Note that knowing each other doesn't preclude the handing over of a butt, but (ha ha) that's not as curious because they're friends.
  • The person inquiring must be out of cigarettes, that is, they must claim to be and look like they're telling the truth.
  • The person asked for a cigarette should be smoking. If they're not, then cigarettes must be visible on their person; however, if they're not smoking, refusals are possible.
  • The Universal Blocking Code may, at the option of the smoker, apply: "Dude, I only have one left." Note, however, that often the smoker will hand over their last cigarette, confounding the societally expected norms even further. randombit informs me that in a similar exchange, if a smoker's last cigarette is offered, the requester will (much of the time) refuse to accept it on discovering it is the smoker's last.

So, the explanations that I have come up with are varied. One, cigarettes are actually quasi-communal! This seems unlikely, but possible; it's unlikely because smokers must typically buy them, and because of the list of conditions above. Two, the smoker is always sympathetic to potential nicotine withdrawal symptoms, even in another person. Three, the smoker complies because they foresee themselves needing a smoke at some point in the future and the present disutility of losing a cig is low enough, compared to the potential future disutility of going into withdrawal, that it's worth complying to reinforce the norm of sharing. Or, four, there's a bond of brotherhood among smokers that demands such sharing. This is likely reinforced by the siege mentality that smoker/non-smoker interactions are taking on.

Whichever way, I think it's interesting. Especially as a non-smoker, because I find that when smokers interact with non-smokers, both sides seem to cling to as selfish a set of behaviors as possible.