The fag end of the argument

Attempts by anti-smoking zealots to smear a report on civil liberties reveal just how bankrupt their arguments are.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Yesterday, I received an email from Amanda Sandford, research manager of the anti-smoking organisation ASH UK: ‘We understand that a report published by the human rights “watchdog” organisation Privacy International has been released today. Please note that this is a tobacco industry-funded report published over a month ago in association with the tobacco manufacturers front group, FOREST.’

Phew! Not only has ASH long been a guardian of the nation’s collective health, protecting us from the nasty smoke spewed out by cigarette abusers, but now it is stepping up to the plate as moral guardian, too. Many easily led people may simply have checked out the report, Civil Liberties: Up in Smoke by Simon Davies, and fallen into the trap of judging the arguments within on their merits. Never fear, because ASH has saved us from that. Some money from Big Tobacco helped to fund the report, so there’s no need to read a word of it or engage in any debate about it.

Such is the nature of the discussion today about smoking, where anti-smoking campaigners seem to take the jokey name for tobacco – the ‘evil weed’ – quite literally, and regard anyone who has a good word to say for cigarettes and smokers as somehow infected with the evil, too.

Taking my life in my hands, I decided to examine the contents of this contraband report. Does Davies argue that children should be forced to chain-smoke from the age of three so that they are hooked on nicotine and set up for a lifetime of addiction? Does he at least argue that smoking isn’t that harmful? Er, no. The report explicitly does not examine the evidence about smoking and health. Instead it looks at how, in a remarkably short space of time, smokers have gone from being the life and soul of the party to latter-day lepers.

The report highlights the way in which momentum for tobacco control has turned into the personal targeting of smokers. For example, a ban on smoking in workplaces and certain public spaces came into force in Scotland in 2006 and in England in 2007. But that ban has been expanded well beyond the letter of the law. Railway companies have banned smoking on open sections of station platforms, even though there seems no legal basis to this. Hospitals and universities have banned smoking in their grounds, for no apparent reason other than to set an example. Even workers alone in vans and lorries – sometimes even vehicles that they own – have been warned against smoking.

Davies highlights seven worrying trends:

  • An increase in non-statutory penalties and controls on smoking:
    Ever more bodies, from local councils to private companies, are imposing restrictions on smoking, even when smokers are in their own homes or outside working hours.
  • An extensive widening of the scope for imposing restrictions:
    Restrictions are imposed on displaying cigarettes, for example, while employment contracts can prohibit smoking simply on the basis of reputation rather than health.
  • A shift towards ‘people’s policing’ of smoking:
    In many countries, there are now hotlines and anonymous tip-off facilities to report illicit smoking, and whistleblowers are protected through legislation. This is encouraging a Stasi-like relationship between the population, companies and the state.
  • A shift from an evidence-based approach to a morally based approach:
    In council and parliamentary debates, there is less recourse to actual evidence and restrictions are justified by sweeping moral arguments instead.
  • An increase in surveillance of smokers:
    Employers, health authorities, the insurance industry, family and neighbours have all been found to be engaged in covert and not-so-covert monitoring of smokers, including random testing for nicotine. The use of ever-expanding age checks by shops ensures that smokers are made aware of the dubious nature of their purchases.
  • A sharp increase in cases of discrimination:
    Smokers have been subjected to hounding by employers and colleagues.
  • A drift from public-health protection to demonisation:
    Davies writes: ‘As with almost all substance-control legislation, tobacco control moves in a short space of time from a cautiously balanced set of limitations to a prohibitionist trend energised by hatred or fear of the substance itself… Open season can effectively be declared on smokers, regardless of how sensitive is their use of tobacco.’

Smokers are not alone in facing such regulatory trends. There has been a creeping increase of control over a variety of aspects of life that were previously regarded as a matter of individual choice in recent years. Privacy and personal autonomy have been assaulted in a wide variety of ways, from outdoor-drinking restrictions and criminal-records checks to the regulation of leafleting.

One way in which this assault has sallied forth is in the perversion of the ‘harm principle’. In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill put forward the argument that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’. This idea has been a powerful shield against attacks on personal autonomy.

Yet in recent years, health authorities and prohibitionist lobbyists like ASH have taken insignificant risks and blown the level of harm out of all proportion, in order to justify state intrusions into our personal lives. The evidence that inhaling ‘secondhand’ smoke is any more than a very minor health risk is extremely flimsy, while the attempt to create a category of ‘third-hand’ smoke is utterly ludicrous. Yet such arguments have been treated as a valid basis on which to impose restrictions on our private choices.

The response of those under attack has been to try to point to the evidential weakness of these ideas. But, as Davies’ report illustrates, this response – while important – is quite insufficient in the face of these moral crusades. Smokers have been foolishly thinking that give-and-take, the normal process of sorting out interpersonal relations, would be enough to resolve such disagreements. That sort of sane and sensible response is no use when zealots like ASH are on the march, and every busybody and jobsworth is emboldened by this anti-smoking mania.

Perhaps what is required is a more muscular defence of personal freedom. Don’t like my choice to smoke here? Go somewhere else. Offended by me sitting in the park quietly drinking with friends? Tough.

Above all, we need an uncompromising defence of open discussion and free debate, something ASH seems allergic to. As the examples in Davies’ report show, smokers and non-smokers alike should be mightily worried about the authoritarian trends that anti-smoking campaigns create and reinforce.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Civil Liberties: Up in Smoke is available to download here.

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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