Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Smoking and other addictions

Charlotte Gore is an addict. A blogging addict. She tried to quit - even announcing to the world the other day that her blog - which last year topped the Total Politics poll (albeit in the Lib Dem category) was shutting down. She'd run out of things to say, she claimed. Furthermore, "the need to avoid repetition – not just of my own work, but what others write too – becomes exponentially more challenging with every post." I know the feeling. The only way to avoid repeating what others have said, I find, is not to read what others are saying at all - that way you aren't repeating the other bloggers, merely thinking alike. But then you miss out on all the blogging action, and people think you don't have any friends, so that's hardly a solution.

Best just to give up. Make a firm resolution, and stick to it. Slip off the wagon and, before you can say "Fisk!" you'll be at it again, churning out the words. As Charlotte has found. A mere two days after announcing her retirement, here she is - elevated to Comment Is Free, no less - with a hard-hitting piece on the hypocrisy and intentional nastiness of the government's anti-smoking policy. Miss Gore wonders, given how despite increasing social ostracism and ever more hectoring messages there are still around 20% of the population who smoke, what more the government will have to resort to if it is to meet its stated objective of halving the number further within a decade. Smoking is, as she says, extremely addictive. Harvard Researcher Kip Viscusi found that, when asked by how many years their habit would shorten their lives, most smokers actually overestimated the damage. They guessed, on average, nine years; in fact it's closer to six.

This helps explain why hard-hitting campaigns based on the dangers of smoking - pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packets, for example - bring decreasing returns. People don't smoke because they are unaware of the health implications. They smoke anyway - either they like it too much, or they can't stop. As Charlotte says, "it's a chemical dependency that causes changes in an individual's brain chemistry that are not easily – or quickly – reversed." (Though having said that, a more effective technique would be to replace the scary picture with a coupon for free nicotine patches - with entry to a prize draw for any that are redeemed.)

Charlotte then asks:


Perhaps it's possible for the government to ramp up the pressure to the point where smokers can be literally terrorised into breaking their addiction against their will. So this becomes a question for society: what level of terror are we willing to inflict on smokers in order to force them to stop? Is the goal really worth the oppression that would be required to have any real effect? And if the current level of official hostility against smokers is having no effect, what does it say about us that we support it irrespectively? Is it simply that expressing our displeasure at smokers makes people feel better about themselves?


It's a good question. Without rehashing a long post I wrote more than a year ago, my guess is that as the number of smokers declines the aversion non-smokers feel for the hardcore addicts that remain actually increases. It's no coincidence that strong measures such as the ban on indoor smoking followed, rather than caused, the decline in smoking among the general population. Only when smokers are a relatively small and disliked minority does it become politically possible, even popular, to make their lives miserable. The fewer smokers there are, the more strident the health message becomes. It's as though you have to chip away at the boulder with chisels until only a few nut-sized pebbles remain: only then can you bring out the sledgehammer.

As John Stuart Mill once wrote, "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 health arguments serve as an excuse: they give people who dislike the smell of smoke permission to indulge their distaste. Indeed, it becomes morally justifiable to do so, not just because smokers are damaging their lungs (and, if they have any, their children - think of the children) but because treating these miscreants costs the NHS money. The fact that the money raised from tobacco duties would pay for treating smoking-related diseases four times over, or that by dying prematurely smokers also save the cost of pensions, is scarcely mentioned.

For anti-smoking campaigners it's a win-win: discouraging the habit is good for the smokers and also good for the rest of society - which, people falsely assume, will no longer have to pick up the tab. Plus, not breathing in other people's smoke makes for a pleasanter environment. Even better, most smokers (unlike most anti-smoking campaigners) aren't middle-class. Ramping up tobacco duties is a great way of taxing the poor - who, not being bankers, can't up sticks and move to Switzerland if they don't want to pay higher prices for their fags. What an excellent system.

They could simply ban smoking, of course. That's what the anti-smoking lobby is ultimately aiming for; and it's the logical conclusion of all these measures. But the cost, both in lost revenue and increased healthcare and pensions costs, would be immense. It's not just smokers who are addicted to tobacco; the Treasury is too. So is the anti-smoking lobby itself, of course. Fortunately, they will find plenty of replacements to satisfy their craving: alcohol, fatty foods, gambling...