Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Smoking out smokers

Last week it was the launch of new "hard-hitting" pictures on cigarette packets, shocking images of death and disease designed to put off anyone thinking of taking a puff (in today's litigious culture, how long can it be before some smoker sues for the emotional distress suffered when looking at the explicit photos of throat cancer and heart disease?) Today, amid as much publicity as it can muster in the face of the ongoing banking collapse (enough to make anyone want to nip outside for a fag) the anti-smoking lobby group ASH is launching a new report (pdf), alongside a YouGov survey which claims widespread public support for yet more clampdowns (such as a headline-grabbing proposal for a ban on smoking in cars). Their press release stresses a figure of £2.7 billion for the annual cost of smoking to the NHS. For some reason they make no mention of the estimated £12 billion raised annually from tobacco duties and other taxes.

The report's subtitle, "Protecting children, reducing inequalities", shows that ASH has learned all that there is to be learned from the New Labour Book of Emotional Blackmail. But even as they demand new and tougher measures, ASH have allowed themselves a modicum of self-congratulation (one might almost characterise it as boasting) for a change that they and their like have wrought. One particularly telling passage runs as follows:


In 1998 it was quite normal to sit in a pub and breathe air laden with the pollutants of tobacco smoke, bombarded by tobacco advertising in a televised sporting event or in the casually considered pages of a glossy magazine. Leaving the pub, one might well confront a billboard promoting yet another tobacco product, overlooking the sponsored signage of the local corner shop. Entering the shop, advertisements for cigarettes would crowd the sales desk, framing a wall of products that, by its very proximity to the till, could not be avoided.

Ten years on, this experience is consigned to history. The wall of cigarette packs remains but the images, advertising and - above all - the smoke have gone. Smoking is increasingly marginalised in public life and smokers can no longer assume that their behaviour will be accepted by others around them.

That last point is perhaps particularly significant. As John Stuart Mill wrote many years ago, "There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings". The laws against homosexuality persisted for so long because there was always a sufficiently large proportion of the population who were disgusted by it. As the proportion of smokers in the population drops, so the antipathy they arouse in non-smokers rises. They are becoming an unpopular minority; and while restrictions on smoking have thus far concentrated on removing the intrusive impact of the smoker on the non-smoker, as smoking retreats ever further from the public sphere its remaining practitioners may expect to be the subject of more, not less, disapproval.

Here I should admit to feeling somewhat conflicted when it comes to bans on smoking. I do not smoke, and I never have, bar the odd after-dinner cigar in my student days (is that still allowed?) And, from a selfish point of view, I welcome the ban on smoking in public places. A world without smoking is a far nicer place: it smells nicer, it looks cleaner, and it undoubtedly healthier. Smoking is not a "pure" issue of health, because it is demonstrably anti-social. It is extremely unpleasant (whether or not passive smoking is as dangerous as is made out) to be a non-smoker in a smoke-filled environment. Smoke, as the song says, gets in your eyes. It also gets in your nostrils, in your hair, in your clothes, on your skin, down your throat. To be free of it is a blessed relief.

My only personal regret, in fact, is that the ban doesn't go far enough. The prohibition of indoor smoking merely shifts the problem out of doors. On a hot, still summer's day the stale smell of smoke hangs around in parks and on street corners. Cigarette ends litter the pavement far more than they ever used to. True, I miss the colourful and imaginative adverts for tobacco; by and large, however, the total elimination of smoking would make my life even better.

On the other hand everything in me revolts against the self-righteous preachiness of the anti-tobacco lobby, their patronising and totalitarian bossiness, their air of paternalistic concern. And I want to defend the right of people to kill themselves after their own fashion if that is what they so desire. Most of all, though, I object to the fetishisation of health, the extent to which personal health is surreptitiously equated to personal morality. As health becomes a secular religion, with doctors and state nannies its priests, smokers are cast as sinners - who must be reformed, re-educated, taught the error of their ways.

In its appeal to public opinion, the anti-smoking lobby seeks openly to mobilise the increasing intolerance felt towards smokers, not just by never-smokers but by ex-smokers (who have all the zeal of converts) and even by some guilt-laden smokers themselves. As Peter Kellner (who conducted the research) puts it:

Our first finding was that support for last year's ban is higher than ever. It had already grown from 51% in 2004, before the legislation was debated, to 72% before the ban took effect. It has now climbed further, to 77%. Even smokers now favour the ban, though by a narrower margin. This matters because a decline in support for existing measures would make it hard to introduce new ones. In fact, YouGov's research suggests that the ban has whetted the public's appetite – and, indeed, the appetite among many smokers – for further action.

It should come as no surprise that the report's authors single out the effect of smoking on children as a primary cause for concern. Not just because children are, in fact, vulnerable to smoke in the home, but because child protection is increasingly prayed in aid whenever any new snooping law or restriction on freedom is proposed. "Children and young people are the primary victims of tobacco in the 21st century", it begins. This is, of course, demonstrably false. The primary victims of tobacco are people to die from smoking-related diseases, and they are never children and rarely young people. They are middle-aged and old, and have been smoking for decades.

But the lie is essential to the further tightening of the emotional screw, as the report goes on to speak of "the earliest moments of their lives, when they are exposed to tobacco toxins in the womb". And to the argument that smokers have been punished already, the report claims that this "misses the point", because, "the focus of tobacco control is not restriction but protection, above all the protection of children..." Indeed, they go on (rather letting the cat out the bag): "Members of the public care about individual liberty and will not support measures that constrain liberty unless there are very good grounds for this, such as protecting the health of children." Smokers are thus subtly equated to child abusers.

Here's the photo used in the front of the report to underline the message. Note the subliminal anti-americanism.


Not just children, though: the poor, too. Here's John Henley in the Guardian:

According to Professor Martin Jarvis, a psychologist at University College London and a leading specialist in the field of smoking and health inequality, this is not a question solely of income: every main indicator of a lower socio-economic status is likely, independent of each of the others, to predict a higher rate of smoking. If your educational level is below the average, you are more likely to smoke. If you live in rented or overcrowded accommodation, you are more likely to smoke. Ditto if you do not have access to a car, are unemployed, or on state income benefit.

Smoking, the report claims, is "the main reason why people from poor and deprived backgrounds have lower life expectancy." Thus it becomes a matter of "equality", which has ever been the enemy of freedom, and the rallying cry of every meddler.

In identifying the two problem areas as children and poor people, the report effectively assimilates the two. Like children, the poor are perceived as "vulnerable". Their higher rates of smoking are attributed to extraneous factors such lack of access to information or insufficient state intervention in the minutiae of their lives. Like children, they are not held responsible for their choices, or even considered competent to make them. Like children, they therefore stand in need of adult supervision.

The notion that the poor are too stupid to know what is good for them may or may not be true. To argue from there that those who are more enlightened have a duty to coerce them into doing good things is a very slippery slope. Already the health fascists are marking out obesity as the next big thing. Alcohol, too, is in their sights. In Scotland, where proposals are being debated to ban under-21 year olds from purchasing alcohol in shops, the debate has been couched almost entirely in terms of health. Would this measure prevent illness or accident? The notion that 18 year olds, as adults, should be able to do whatever other adults do, regardless of the consequences to their health, hasn't merely been rejected, it has scarcely even been addressed. Once an expert comes forward to assert that such and such a measure is essential for promoting "health", everything else goes by default.

I was quite surprised, especially given the report's enormous ambition (they aim to reduce the rate of smoking to 11% of the population in a mere seven years) that the proposals leaked earlier this year to force smokers to buy a licence to purchase tobacco do not feature. Instead, the emphasis seems to be on further restrictions and on increasing the pressure on smokers to quit. Here's an interesting sentence: "For heavily addicted smokers who are currently unable or unwilling to quit, there is also the possibility of switching to pure nicotine products (which, like the current medicinal products on the market, contain only nicotine and not other tobacco derivatives)." Unable or unwilling? Is quitting to become compulsory? Perhaps that is indeed their ultimate aim.

Actually, some might wonder about the contrast between the authors' ambitious aims and their rather tentative proposals. Denying suggestions of a "nanny state", they insist that "if adults in England want to smoke, they can - a remarkable freedom, given the toxicity of the product." And remarkable it is, given the prevalence of extreme risk-aversion in so many other areas of life.

"As banning tobacco products is not an option," the report continues, "the very best that tobacco control can do is to reduce the harm that tobacco inflicts on smokers, on smokers’ children and families, and on society as a whole." But the argument the report gives for not banning smoking altogether isn't an entirely convincing one: "No-one wants the supply of tobacco to be controlled entirly by criminal gangs," it states. But whyever not? If criminals gangs are good enough for the supply of recreational drugs (which were once legal too), it's hard to imagine that they would be any less efficient in supplying tobacco. So what if smoking were "driven underground" as a result? At least there would be less of it. It would give the police some more soft targets to go after, which would be good for morale. And the criminal associations of the tobacco suppliers would no doubt form a potent theme in anti-tobacco propaganda, as it does in anti-drugs campaigns.

What they really think, I assume, is that at present there are too many smokers to make an outright ban politically acceptable. But such campaigns have in the past proceeded by stealth, and if they do manage to get the rate below 10% full prohibition is unlikely to be far behind. They'll get there in the end. Our descendants will no doubt think it astonishing that smoking continued to be permitted for so long. Unless there's a revolution, of course.

3 comments:

valdemar said...

A revolution? Over the 'right' to stink up the place by burning dried leaves? Interesting... Though I suppose if you got cannabis libertarians on board with a slogan of 'Free Mars bars for all!' you might have a chance.

Re: prejudice. The smokers who congregate outside the window of my office are skiving. Of course I don't like them. I'm not allowed a skive on the basis of my internet porn/gambling/sudoku addictions.

silas said...

I am intrigued to learn that smoking is the main reason why people from poor and deprived backgrounds have a lower life expectancy. From my own personal experiences I would have thought not being able to buy decent food (or have any way of cooking it), heat a room or even afford accommodation were more primary causes.

Perhaps I've just lived in good rented accommodation, but most of the properties I've regarded as "home" have had bans on smoking (landlord requested, presumably, to decrease the need for repeated heavy cleaning or repainting).

On a separate (if related) topic, an ex-boss of mine - a heavy smoker - wouldn't allow anyone to smoke in his car as he was concerned it would lower any future re-sale value. Going on any journey over two hours with him required at least one smoke break.

Within work, however, he could manage to get from his morning coffee break to lunch without needing to step outside, and was more than capable of getting through the afternoon nicotine free.

I, as a smoker, dislike people taking work breaks for a smoke. I also dislike people taking personal mobile calls while they're supposed to be working.

Speaking of which, how long do you suspect it will be before the Govt goes after them with the same zeal they've gone after smokers? Whilst there is a fine for using a mobile when driving, I see about 10 or 12 people per day doing so. I never see people smoking in pubs or shops.

valdemar said...

Good point Silas. People who hold a loud phone conversation in the street should be spot-fined. And slapped. If they're not too big.