The smoking debate

'You don't want to take sides with either contestant in the battle between pro-smokers and the antis. You should just watch out for the referee.'

‘Why do you smoke?’ demanded my mum, when I was rumbled at the age of 17.

I remember giving a typically snotty teenage retort, along the lines of ‘Because it brings world peace and it’s really good for you - why do you think?’. (Sorry, mum). I am nicer now, but I stand by my point. There is no possible, political justification for smoking - it’s just something you do.

So why, a few years on, do I find myself on radio programmes, in newspapers and on websites talking about the politics of smoking and anti-smoking? There is still no political justification for taking up the evil weed. But it has become a political battle in which, all too often, you feel compelled to take sides.

In the fresh-air corner you have the anti-smokers, who claim smoking should be banned because it is bad for smokers, and bad for everybody else. They accuse smokers of wilfully ruining their own health and everybody else’s, and of anti-socially polluting the atmosphere in restaurants and pubs. And they accuse the evil tobacco industry of covering up the harm that smoking does, and of creating a society of helpless addicts, hopelessly devoted to their 20/40/60-a-day.

In the brown corner, the pro-smokers huddle together ranting against ‘health fascism’ and the ‘PC police’, and banging on about the right to smoke. They object to any notion that the tobacco industry encourages people to take up smoking (apparently, all advertising does is get people to switch brands), and claim that the costs of healthcare for people with smoking-related diseases is offset by the exorbitant amounts of tax levied on cigarettes in the UK.

As referee, you have the UK government and health authorities, who pump resources into anti-smoking campaigns, who talk about banning tobacco advertising, and who consider imposing national regulations on smoking in public places - but is quite reluctant to bring them in. And spectating, you have everybody else, the people who are just smokers or non-smokers, and would probably rather be debating something completely different (maybe even world peace).

The smoking/anti-smoking debate, then, seems like a battle between two clear sides. But neither side should win. There is no ‘right to smoke’, and there is no ‘right to freedom from other people’s smoke’. There is just a principle - the principle of our freedom to make decisions about our own health and our own lives. And it is this principle that is all too often lost in, well, a cloud of smoke.

So, to the anti-smokers - smoking is bad for you, and you know that whatever the health campaigns and the tobacco adverts tell you. Forget the long-term health risks - try running for a bus, or walking up some stairs. On the other hand, it is highly debatable whether second-hand smoke (passive smoking) poses a serious health risk - this seems to be something that is assumed, rather than proved (1).

Some people who don’t like cigarette smoke might see smokers as antisocial - but only in so far as people who wear acrid strong perfume in enclosed spaces or who fart on crowded commuter trains are antisocial, and we don’t want to ban them. And if people are addicted to smoking, why do so many of them give up, or cut down, every year? There is still such a thing as willpower (2).

And to the pro-smokers - being told to stub your fag out is hardly ‘fascism’, and of course advertising tries to encourage people to smoke. It might not be very successful at it now - on the Marlboro billboard ad just outside my local London Underground station, the only thing to catch your eye is the massive government health warning - but it tries nonetheless. The point is that people are bright enough not just to do what the adverts tell them. And the ‘who pays for the NHS?’ argument is not only unconvincing, it is pretty self-defeating: what, you want smokers to pay more tax?

To everybody else: you don’t want to take sides with either contestant in the battle between pro-smokers and the antis. You just want to watch out for the referee.

Through the increasing health promotion campaigns, regulations on advertising, and broader moves to regulate how and where people smoke, the UK government is promoting a clear message of its own: that it is the government’s responsibility to tell people what to do with their health, and how to conduct their personal lives (3). And government anti-smoking crusades are not limited to the UK (4). The worldwide epidemic of government anti-smoking regulations has spread with the speed of foot-and-mouth disease, and its consequences are the same everywhere.

Smokers are presented, not as people who make choices about what to consume, but as pathetic victims of their personal indulgences. They are not seen as capable of negotiating their habits with other people - being sensitive to the wishes of non-smokers in restaurants, for example - but as polluting brutes who need to have their behaviour controlled from on high.

In a similar way, non-smokers are presented as passive victims of their peers’ poisonous behaviour - as wimps who are incapable of asking their mates to put their fags out, and as such sensitive creatures that they cannot tolerate even the thought of other people’s puffing. However much it may seem that government regulations on smoking represent a victory for non-smokers, the non-smokers lose out too. The price they pay for a bit of clean air is to be seen and treated as really quite pathetic.

So isn’t it about time that the phoney war set up between smokers and non-smokers came to an amicable end? This is not our war, and neither side wins. We are all just people, with different bad habits. And if the smell of cigarette smoke were the only thing to come between us, we would be doing rather well.

(1) See
Passive smoke gets in their eyes by Brendan O’Neill
(2) See Addiction addicts by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
(3) See Why not a No Sermonising Day? by Mick Hume
(4) See Beyond California by Victor Rortvedt and Craic good, cigarettes bad by Patrick West

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