Now they’re giving up more than cigarettes

Twenty years after kicking the habit, spiked’s editor-at-large Mick Hume bemoans the changed view of smokers and quitting.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The UK authorities have just made their usual pious New Year’s resolution on our behalf: they resolve that we shall all give up smoking this year. Hence 2010 has begun as 2009 ended, with yet another round of state-sponsored anti-smoking propaganda, starring those all-singing TV adverts which insist that you should stop smoking for your kids, because they would ‘do anything for you’. (These ads were presumably made by people without children.)

As one who has long been irritated by the increasingly shrill and illiberal anti-smoking crusade, I have been thinking again about the issue over the past week. Because this New Year marked the twentieth anniversary of the day I stopped smoking for good.

The intervening two decades have brought remarkable changes in the way that both smokers and giving up smoking are viewed in our society. It seems to me now that these changes are about far more than the way we see cigarettes. They mark a downward shift in the predominant cultural view of our humanity, and a demeaning of the qualities of adult autonomy and independence.

When I started smoking as a young teenager in the early 1970s, we all knew already that it was Very Bad for us. Those who imagine that bombarding youngsters with the terrible truth about smoking today will magically stop them taking it up are historically ignorant as well as naive. I recall being shown films of blackened smokers’ lungs and wheezing old geezers in the primary school classrooms of the Sixties. There was even an anti-smoking record, comprised largely of a hoarse smoker tunelessly coughing their guts out while promising to ‘throw the packet away, away / when I’ve had just one more cigarette’, which was played on the BBC’s popular children’s radio show Junior Choice every Saturday morning (I am not making this up).

Hume enjoying a cigarette in 1982.

None of this made any difference to us teenagers, of course, since smoking did not affect our young lungs like that. We smoked because we wanted to. Smoking was a statement about how you saw yourself – as grown-up, tough, cool, whatever – and an enjoyable social habit. Back then almost all of my mates smoked and the people I was attracted to tended to be smokers. Having got over the initial nausea of those first few cigarettes – you have always had to work hard to become a smoker – I loved everything about smoking, from the buzz to the look of it (I didn’t realise it made me stink until I gave up, and of course none of my smoking friends noticed anyway). That is, I loved everything about it except the price. At 10-and-a-half pence for 10 of the cheapest fags when I started, we were hard pressed to afford a drag, and generally had to sacrifice a school dinner for the price of 10 Player’s Number Six. How young people find more than three quid for 10 tax-hammered cigarettes today I have no idea – perhaps from parents who will do anything for them.

The mid-Seventies marked the point at which the big decline in smoking in the UK began. But back then it was still seen as a normal, if slightly dirty habit. Smoking was legal even on the London Underground until after the King’s Cross fire of 1987 (although anybody tempted to get nostalgic about the ‘glamour’ of the smoking age might like to recall those filthy Tube smoking carriages), and was accepted everywhere from buses to offices and of course pubs.

Importantly, whether or not you smoked was seen as your choice and your responsibility. Or as my ardently anti-smoking mother would say, ‘It’s your funeral’ – and nobody else’s. If you wanted to give up smoking, that was your choice and your problem too – other people would just shrug and wait to see how you got on, probably offering you a fag in the pub and expecting you to accept sooner or later.

When I eventually stopped smoking at New Year 1990 it was certainly not because of being browbeaten about ‘the children’ or the planet – see latest propaganda about how smokers contribute to deforestation etc – or any of that. Like many people who decide to kick a habit, it was a personal decision made because something had changed in my own life. I turned 30 at the end of 1989, and had always foreseen that as a time to accept that one’s body would start to lose the indestructible ‘bouncebackability’ of youth. My father and his brother had also quite recently died of smoking-related diseases in their fifties, as had their own father before them.

So like millions of others, I decided to pack it in and went cold turkey. In my case that meant going from 60 a day to none. In an age before nicotine patches and all that paraphernalia, I did it using the oral crutch of sucking 20-plus lollipops a day, which made me feel even sicker than the gut-wrenching withdrawal symptoms. The impact on the UK tobacco industry was almost as harsh; I had always stayed loyal to No 6, although those strong little coffin nails had gone out of fashion, but a couple of months after a friend and I finally stopped smoking them Player’s ceased manufacturing them. I still miss my beloved No 6, though I don’t regret divorcing them.

In the 20 years since then I have watched two trends. On one hand a cultural shift has meant that smoking has become far less popular in Britain. According to Cancer Research, in Britain in 1948, when surveys of smoking began, 82 per cent of men smoked some form of tobacco and 65 per cent were cigarette smokers. By 1970, the percentage of cigarette smokers had fallen to 55 per cent. From the 1970s onwards, smoking prevalence fell rapidly. By 2007 around a fifth (22 per cent) of men (aged 16 and over) were reported as smokers – less than half the Seventies rate. Between 1972 and 2007 the percentage of women who smoked also fell dramatically from 44 per cent to 20 per cent.

On the other hand, however, at the same time the anti-smoking campaign has become increasingly loud and authoritarian. The UK health authorities today talk about an ‘epidemic’ of smoking, which seems a strange way to refer to something that is not an illness and which anyway has more than halved in prevalence in recent decades. The past few years have brought bans on smoking in public places, and moves towards doing the same in private ones, alongside increasingly fierce anti-tobacco propaganda. Over Christmas I saw an old interview with John Mortimer, describing how finding himself alone in his wheelchair at a house party, while all the rest of the guests shivered and smoked in the back garden, struck him as the final proof that the country had gone mad.

Equally remarkable and surreal has been the change in attitudes and arguments used to justify this crackdown. Smoking is no longer seen as ‘your funeral’, an individual’s problem. Instead it is has been redefined as anti-social behaviour, not simply something unpleasant to some but intolerable to all. The modern spectre of ‘passive smoking’ has been raised up as ‘proof’ that smokers are killing other people, especially children. In fact many health experts have acknowledged that the evidence for this is pretty thin, nothing compared to the hard evidence of the harm smokers do to themselves. But no matter. The case against passive smoking has been deployed to impose limits on anybody’s freedom of choice about smoking.

This is a symptom of a wider cultural shift in which the illiberal authorities insist that you can no longer be allowed the right to make the ‘wrong’ choices about how you live. They have even invented a new political language to justify such interventions as being for our own good. As I noted when it first appeared alongside the smoking ban, the official unhyphenated word ‘smokefree’ fits pretty exactly George Orwell’s description of a newspeak word created to turn ‘freedom’ into its opposite.

The move to redefine smoking as anti-social behaviour has also struck a chord with many because it chimes with the cri de coeur of the age – that your life is being messed up by other people, and you need protection from them (and possibly also from yourself). The underlying issue here is not passive smoking so much as passive living, inviting the authorities in to resolve your problems. Hence there was none of the talked-of resistance to the ban on smoking in public places. Where once it would have been thought these were matters for adults to sort out among themselves, now it is considered fair enough for the state forcibly to stub it out.

The flipside of the altered view of smokers is that giving up can no longer be left to those sorry individuals themselves. Nowadays, it seems, it takes a village to stop smoking. Since the habit of smoking tobacco is now deemed not just an addiction but almost to be a pathology, it must surely require therapy and psycho-medical intervention to ‘cure’ the sufferer.

Thus smokers are now inundated with offers of support groups and helplines and expert advice. The health authorities claim that these work, and no doubt they do for some who get involved. But the wider more worrying message is surely that it is too hard to give up on your own, that smokers are just too pathetic and spineless to cope with the pressures and side effects. Instead of deciding and acting for themselves, the only choice they need make is to be drawn into a therapeutic relationship with the state and its medical ‘agents of persuasion’, who will show the sinners how to repent and live a physically and spiritually healthy life. It almost sounds enough to drive any right-thinking individual back to the fag packet.

I don’t regret stopping smoking 20 years ago, and it would be daft for anybody to take it up as some sort of political protest. But I do worry about what is behind the changed cultural status of smokers and giving up. I think I will always feel like a smoker inside, even though I hope never to have another puff. But even those who have never touched one should surely be concerned about the diminished view of adult autonomy and free choice that the anti-smoking crusade has helped to spread, opening the door to the new interfering ‘politics of behaviour’ in a way that would never have been tolerated in the smoke-filled rooms of yore.

Of course, having packed in smoking all those years ago, I have since become part of the ‘overweight/obesity epidemic’ that allegedly threatens us all today. As they used to say in another time: you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume reflected on what the ban says about today’s society. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick reviewed two books looking at the McCarthyism of the anti-smoking movement. Christopher Snowdon looked at how critics of smoking bans are labelled as ‘deniers’. He also interviewed David Goerlitz, aka the ‘Winston Man’. Rob Lyons looked at the crazy world of England’s smoking ban and accused UK health campaigners of smoking smokers out of polite society. spiked writers around the world reported on the global crusade against the ‘evil weed’. Dolan Cummings argued that freedom should not be for sale. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.

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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