Witch-hunting smokers out of polite society

In depicting smoking as a habit of the poor or insane, UK health campaigners are demonising ‘undesirable people’.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

‘According to me, 2008 will emphatically be the year of the disgruntled former anti-smoking campaigner. Just look at him now, from your vantage point in September, meddling, irritable, prone to taking up any cause that comes his way because of the catastrophe that befell him in 2007 – when smoking was banned in public places and overnight his raison d’être evaporated.’

These words, written by Stefanie Marsh in The Times (London) in December 2007 (1), were hopelessly optimistic. Far from turning out to be ‘the year of the disgruntled former anti-smoking campaigner’, in 2008 the health guardians of New Labour have clung on to their anti-smoking, health-crusading raison d’être. Even after their ban on smoking in public places, they continue to come up with new ways to restrict smoking or access to cigarettes, and are always looking for other ‘vulnerable’ groups of ‘addicts’ to meddle with. Well, when you’re an unpopular government in desperate need of a purpose, any crusade will do.

So it is that the UK Department of Health has published a consultation paper on the next front in the War on Tobacco (2). The paper, which seeks views on future policy for England – the Scots have already decided to go ahead with similar measures – covers four main areas:

  • Reducing smoking rates and health inequalities caused by smoking;
  • Protecting children and young people from smoking;
  • Supporting smokers to quit;
  • Helping those who cannot quit.

Or to put it another way: having saved innocent bar staff and other workers last year from the infinitesimal threat of secondhand smoke, the powers-that-be want to get back to the serious business of weaning smokers off the filthy habit altogether. And, in particular, the health missionaries want to win over more of the dumb, fag-loving natives.

According to figures from the General Household Survey 2006 quoted in the consultation paper, ‘routine and manual’ workers are nearly twice as likely (around 29 per cent) to smoke as ‘managerial and professional’ staff (15 per cent). However, the original survey comes with a health warning: declines in reported smoking ‘may be due to people becoming more reluctant to admit to smoking, rather than to more people giving up’ – suggesting that those for whom appearances matter more might be reluctant to admit to enjoying a fag (3).

Such caveats are missing in the consultation paper. So, the introduction tells us that: ‘The chances of being a smoker are substantially increased in people living in rented housing, receiving state benefits, without access to a car, who are unemployed, or living in crowded accommodation. Above and beyond this, there is a gradient by educational level, and an increased risk in those who are divorced or separated or who are lone parents. Cigarette smoking prevalence is particularly high in patients with mental illness.’ (4)

So, smoking is a thing that just happens to you, like contracting cholera. Smoking, apparently, is not a choice made by reasoning adults, but rather must result from some deficiency or vulnerability that requires the intervention of experts to resolve. The enlightened health professional is there to minister to the poor, the stupid and the insane.

The paper continues: ‘The association between smoking and social disadvantage begins in infancy. Babies from deprived backgrounds are more likely to be born to smoking mothers, and they suffer much greater exposure to secondhand smoke in infancy and childhood.’ (5) This is turned into a cycle-of-(self)abuse argument. Kids see mum smoke (but not dad – he left years ago) and conclude that smoking is a normal thing to do. The role of the government is to step in and break the cycle.

You can see how this sort of thing appeals to the righteous campaigners at the Department of Health – but it only results in illiberal legislation, increasing the intervention of the state in our lives. While smokers now clutter the pavements outside every bar, the ideas floated in the consultation paper include banning anything in a shop that would indicate that cigarettes are sold there (hiding them under the counter so you have to ask for them), banning the sale of packets of 10, and outlawing vending machines (6).

This kind of thing is, on the surface, a bit stupid. Smokers will still buy cigarettes, even if they have to try a little harder to get them. Making smokers buy 20 when they only want 10 will only encourage them to smoke more. Putting the owners of cigarette vending machines out of business will only raise a cheer from those of us who have always resented paying over-the-odds for a pack of 16.

While these are just proposals for consulation, the government has already launched a TV advertising campaign to guilt trip parents about how their children will inevitably copy their smoking habits as they grow up. The message is: even if you want to smoke, think of your kids. This is bad news for all those responsible parents who already step out of their own homes to have a drag (like the mother in the ad who smokes in the garden). Apparently, they’re killing their kids anyway.

As it happens, children don’t mindlessly copy their parents. Deciding whether or not to smoke is one of the first stumbling steps on the road to adulthood. Kids that smoke tend to be kicking back against adult control and grasping for independence, regardless of whether their parents like a fag or not.

What the proposals are really all about is the long-standing anti-smoking campaign technique of denormalisation. This is an insidious attempt at social conformism. If people who engage in some habit are marked out as different, as deviant, then others will reject them. If you have to ask for a packet of fags in much the same manner that dodgy men in macs have to ask for porn, you’re less likely to want to do it.

This section from Canada’s national strategy for health, published in 1999, explains the benefits of denormalisation: ‘Denormalisation activities are important because they may help develop a set of values and behaviours that bring the whole community together to reinforce desirable behaviour and attitudes. It can help make tobacco use an issue of community concern, rather than just an issue for those using the products. Secondly, it can help ensure that people behave in appropriate ways – including making efforts to quit – without the need for a lot of policing or enforcement. Thirdly, it can help generate support for government and broader defence of public health policy in the face of industry challenges.’ (7)

This is the kind of thing that health activists like to think of as community support; to me, it’s a little bit too close to the kind of community support found in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, where mass hysteria is whipped up to drive out innocent young girls proclaimed as witches. Anti-smoking campaigners and health officials must be beside themselves with excitement as smokers are increasingly driven in shame from polite society – along with those who dare to be overweight or enjoy a drink.

However, none of this exists in a vacuum. Prohibitionists have always existed – the question is why they get a hearing today. The ‘tyranny of health’, as Dr Michael Fitzpatrick neatly described it (8), is a product of the realignment of modern political life – the conflicts of old are gone, but so are the grand visions of how society might be changed. Governments at least could pretend to run the economy in the past; the credit crunch and the rising prices of oil and food only confirm the impotence of our leaders today. And they don’t get much more impotent than New Labour is today.

Now, governments become social managers, intervening in the tiniest nooks and crannies of our existence to tell us the right way to live, playing on our sense of vulnerability. It’s a damn sight easier to look like you’ve got a sense of purpose by saving us from our own vices than confronting the chronic weakness of the UK economy, for example. And the enthusiasm of the Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh to push ahead with these policies shows that health authoritarianism is not something that New Labour has a monopoly on.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Ken McLaughlin described the smoking ban in psychiatric institutions as madness. spiked writers around the world reported on the global crusade against the ‘evil weed’. Nathalie Rothschild reported on a rare protest against the English smoking ban. Mick Hume reflected on what the ban says about today’s society. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.

(1) Now that cigarettes are banned, what can they outlaw next?, The Times (London), 31 December 2007

(2) The Future of Tobacco, UK Department of Health

(3) General Household Survey: Smoking and drinking among adults, 2006

(4) The Future of Tobacco, UK Department of Health

(5) The Future of Tobacco, UK Department of Health

(6) Tougher restrictions on tobacco products, UK Department of Health, 31 May 2008

(7) A National Strategy to Reduce Tobacco Use in Canada, Health Canada, 1999

(8) See The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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