Frequently the burning down of a cigarette functions psychologically as a time indicator. A smoker waiting for someone who is late says to himself, “Now I’ll smoke one more cigarette, and then I am off.” One person explained, “It is much easier to watch a cigarette get smaller and smaller than to keep watching a clock and look at the hands dragging along.”
In some countries, the farmers report distances in terms of the number of pipes, as for example, “It’s about three pipes from here to Smithtown.”
A cigarette not only measures time, but also seems to make time pass more rapidly. That is why waiting periods almost automatically stimulate the desire to smoke. But a deeper explanation of this function of smoking is based on the fact that smoking is ersatz activity. Impatience is a common feature of our times, but there are many situations which compel us to be patient. When we are in a hurry, and yet have to wait, a cigarette gives us something to do during that trying interval.
The experience of wanting to act, but being unable to do so, is very unpleasant and may even, in extreme cases, cause attacks of nervous anxiety. Cigarettes may then have a psychotherapeutic effect. This helps to explain why soldiers, waiting for the signal to attack, sometimes value a cigarette more than food.