Tobacco Control often refers to smoking as an ‘epidemic’. But it seems to me that there’s more of an antismoking epidemic going on.
Sixty years ago there weren’t any antismokers. Or very few. None that I knew of.
The first antismoker I came across was Dr W, in whose house I lived for a while back in 1965. His eldest son was a bit of a delinquent, and was always getting into trouble. I seem to vaguely remember that he got expelled from school. One evening, not long after I’d arrived in the house, I could hear Dr W’s raised voice coming from another room, as he berated his eldest son again. Everyone could hear. And it was soon perfectly clear that his latest delinquency had been to be caught smoking. Wishing to escape the awful tirade, I set off for my room, only to come upon Dr W, standing in an empty room, shouting “Filthy! Filthy! Filthy!” His son had presumably left the room, and his father was shouting upstairs after him. I slipped upstairs too, as Dr W continued to rant in his strange, deep, dead voice.
And I immediately concluded that Dr W had a bit of a screw loose. He was a very strange man in various other ways. For example, he seemed incapable of laughter. I never once saw a genuine smile on his face. I always kept away from him if I could. I was rather terrified of him.
When I started smoking a couple of years later, the recollection of Dr W’s mad tirade was what clinched any debate I might have had. If mad Dr W hated smoking with such intensity, I figured that it was probably pretty harmless.
The next antismoker I came across a couple of years later also seemed to have a bit of screw loose. He was a fellow student at university, and was not only antismoking, but also a Welsh Nationalist. He seemed to be permanently angry about one thing or other. I also avoided him if I could.
The next raft of antismokers to appear were the pot-smoking hippies whose company I joined. They believed that illegal pot (cannabis) was not only utterly harmless, but in fact extremely beneficial. And they contrasted illegal yet harmless pot with legal yet lethal tobacco. They believed nothing that they were authoritatively told about pot, but everything they were authoritatively told about tobacco. And 50 years on from then, most of them still do.
And then there were the ex-smokers. A friend here or a friend there would announce that he/she had given up smoking. This was usually as a result of health fears rather than peer pressure.
In fact, over the next few years, quite a few of the people I knew started worrying about health, and taking vitamins, and giving up some foods – and even cooking utensils (aluminium was supposed to be a killer) -.
And then, as the numbers of ex-smokers or never-smokers continued rising, people started banning smoking in their houses or flats. One here, another there.
I was present on one of the occasions when one of these home bans was brought into force. Around 1990, my landlady (who also happened to be a good friend of mine, for whom I had rolled countless numbers of cigarettes) had invited a bunch of people round for a dinner party, and before serving up any food, she announced – to everyone’s astonishment – that smoking was banned. More or less everyone protested, but she would not relent. The dinner party did not proceed very happily, because as soon as everyone had finished one course, they’d all head out of her flat onto the stairs for a between-course smoke. After that, dinner invitations from her became few and far between. And she entertained her growing numbers of non-smoking, and increasingly vegetarian friends instead.
A few years later a similar smoking ban came into force in the household of a couple I knew. He was a smoker, and she was a never-smoker. And she now insisted that he no longer smoke in their home. So whenever I visited, he and I would stand rather sheepishly outside the back door. A few years later they got divorced, and I think that smoking was one contributory factor.
The darkest event, which filled me with foreboding, was a 50th birthday party thrown by a friend in a hired country house in 2005 (i.e. before the UK smoking ban). I discovered on arrival that smoking was banned everywhere inside the house, and a little summerhouse in the garden about 100 yards from the house was the only designated smoking area. I spent very little time inside the house. I spent most of the time sitting out by the summer house, in the silent company of the rock band that had been playing, grimly aware of the 100 yard divide between the smokers and the non-smokers.
A couple of years later of course – in 2007 – utter darkness fell as the UK smoking ban came into force, and all smokers were expelled from more or less everywhere.
But most of the events I have described took place before that, and in many cases long before it. And to me it looks like an epidemic of antismokers. It started with few doctors, like crazy Dr W (who was very active in the BMA), and it gradually spread. And it claimed most of my friends, most of whom had started out as hard-smoking, hard-drinking, delinquents and who metamorphosed, slowly, and one by one, into something else – while I remained unchanged, and utterly indifferent to every health scare.
How did it happen? I suppose that much of it was simply the result of incessant media campaigns, which ramped up very strongly in the years leading up to the UK smoking ban. Most of these people had TVs, and I guess they absorbed a lot of the antismoking propaganda from there, drip by drip. The same people, no doubt, are as convinced of the reality of global warming as they are of the awful menace of tobacco. They were people who believed authorities. They trusted doctors and scientists and experts. And they largely trusted them because they had little or no scientific expertise themselves. For the people I knew were writers and artists and journalists and architects and lawyers.
And I didn’t trust doctors. I had been permanently inoculated against trusting antismoking doctors by Dr W. I needed no booster jabs. Neither did I much trust ‘scientists’, because I’d been a research assistant at university, and had moved for a while in scientific research circles, and knew that ‘scientists’ were as human and as fallible as anyone else.
The people I knew trusted authorities of one sort or other, and they also trusted each other. So when one of them gave up smoking, the others also felt slightly impelled to give up smoking too. They hadn’t absorbed all their antismoking ideology from the media, but also from each other.
I no longer know most of those people. I think they’re all very gullible, and that they have been gulled, and that one day they’re likely to find out that they’ve been gulled. And my distrust of doctors and scientists and experts has grown deeper. I don’t trust the media either. And I don’t trust the politicians.
I’m no longer 100 yards away from the house: I’m 100 miles away, and getting further away every day.
But maybe people are beginning to realise that they’re being gulled. One thing that is emerging from the ISIS study on whose data I’m currently working is a widespread collapse of trust in experts and the media. It’s true even among the small group of non-smokers in the study. Trust in authorities is evaporating. And I don’t know why. All I know is that it’s long overdue.
So what next for the antismoking epidemic? What happens when trust in authorities collapses? What do all these trusting people do?