I listened to the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 tonight, so as to hear what Chris Snowdon had to say. I had the pleasure of finding that James Delingpole was also appearing on it. As ever, it was chaired by Michael Buerk, with long-serving panelists Michael Portillo, Melanie Phillips, Clifford Longley, and Matthew Taylor. The subject today was "nudging". How far should we go to stop people doing something that’s bad for them?
First up for questioning was Professor Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge. He was at pains to say that he didn’t want to "nudge" people to do what they didn’t want to do, but to help them do what they did want to do. Nobody on the panel seemed to understand that. And, to be quite honest, neither did I. What on earth is the point of "nudging" people to do what they want to do anyway?
Asked about cigarette smokers who wanted to carry on smoking, Thaler seemed rather baffled at the unfamiliar notion. Eventually he said that surveys showed that most smokers wanted to give up smoking. 75% of them, one of the panelists said later.
This was the first of several Facts That Everybody Knows About Smokers which came up. I’m always rather puzzled that so many smokers want to give up smoking. If that many smokers wanted to give up smoking, it would have been a regular topic of conversation. But in my 40+ years of smoking, it’s something I’ve hardly ever discussed with any seasoned smoker, although it was quite often a topic of conversation with occasional smokers who would cadge a cigarette off me, and then feel guilty about it. The seasoned smokers just smoked, and said nothing about it. They no more wanted to give up smoking than they wanted to give up drinking or eating fish and chips, or betting on horses. Personally I simply don’t believe that 75% of smokers want to give up smoking. It’s probably an ASH fake factoid. Much more likely is that 75% of smokers feel so brow-beaten and excluded and over-taxed that they feel they have little option but to give up smoking, but they don’t really want to – which is why it’s so hard for them to give up, and why so many who do manage become such bitter and twisted people.
Anyway, Michael Portillo then said that he thought that brown paper packaging for cigarettes was "a restriction of freedom". I was very surprised at this, for I remembered Portillo looking forward enthusiastically to a smoking ban on This Week back in 2006. I remember him saying on the same occasion that a smoking ban would never work in Spain. We’ll find out in a month or so about that.
Next up was James Delingpole, who spoke robustly against "nudging" as used for Cameron’s Big Society, which Delingpole saw as simply increasing state power. He was strongly and uncompromisingly opposed to government interference in private lives, and to government in general.
Then came Rosemary Gillespie of the Roy Castle Foundation (God am I so sick of Roy Castle!), who approved of plain packaging if it would make smoking "uncool". Michael Portillo said he was astonished that she thought she could decide what was to "cool" or "uncool". Gillespie then said that cigarette packaging was aimed at children, and anything that could reduce the intake of young smokers was a good thing, and it would help to raise awareness of the extent to which they were being manipulated by tobacco companies. Portillo pointed out that imposing plain packaging was equally manipulative.
Melanie Phillips then said that smoking was "a public evil", and smokers were addicts, and therefore not free. This was the second and third of the Facts That Everybody Knows About Smokers. Firstly that they are addicts. And secondly, because they are addicts, and in the vice-like grip of evil weed, they are incapable of free choice. Phillips didn’t go on to complete the manoeuvre by drawing the conclusion that since smokers were not truly free agents, they could not make choices for themselves, and so choices had to be made for them. But it’s far from clear to me that smokers actually are addicted to cigarettes. Habituated seems more like it. There isn’t an equivalent of cold turkey when people stop smoking. But nevertheless, addicts are what they’re gleefully called anyway, because a drug addict is regarded as someone who is helplessly caught up a cycle of addiction, and no more free than a man caught in an iron trap, and can only be freed by the intervention of others. When people want to find an excuse to intervene in other people’s lives, it’s of great assistance if those people can be first labelled as addicts of one sort or other. Either telly addicts, or sex addicts, or chocaholics. Once the ‘addict’ label has been pinned on them, it’s an open invitation for intervention, and for outright attack.
Somehow or other, though, Melanie Phillips seemed not to think that people were addicted to fattening foods. They could cut back on those quite easily, she thought, unlike the helplessly-addicted smokers who couldn’t go 10 minutes without a fag.
Finally Chris Snowdon came on, and brushed aside any suggestion that plain packaging was unimportant. It had to be taken in the context of all the other moves against tobacco, all of which, he said, were heading towards the prohibition of tobacco. And it was well past nudging. It was outright bullying and denormalision. "Stigmatising?" Michael Buerk asked, rather helpfully. Snowdon agreed, and went on to say that it encouraged hatred towards smokers.
Clifford Longley then weighed in with the fourth and fifth and sixth Facts That Everybody Knows About Smoking. That it was an antisocial practice, he declared – to which Chris Snowdon replied that this was his personal opinion. And, he added, it harmed people around smokers, as well as harming smokers themselves. All I can say is that throughout my entire life, smoking has been a quintessentially social activity, with a great many people never smoking, except when in the company of others (my mother fell into this category). The same people would very often not touch a drop of alcohol except in the company of others. Smoking and drinking has lain at the heart of social life for a very long time. Rather than smokers being antisocial, the truly antisocial people are those who ban smoking and exclude smokers, and inflict enormous social damage in the process.
And as for the evidence that passive smoking poses any threat to anyone, well, most studies clearly show that it doesn’t.
But Chris Snowdon conceded that smoking was damaging to smokers’ health. But is that true either? I’ve gone over some of the studies linking smoking and lung cancer, showing how weak they are in a variety of ways. There are also all those examples of smokers of great longevity like Jeanne Calment, a smoker who lived to the age of 120 or so. If smoking is universally damaging to smokers, such people simply should not exist at all. But they do. And I’m edging ever closer the view that absolutely everything that has been said against tobacco for the past 70 years – whether active smoking or passive smoking or anything else – has all been one long stream of lies. The whole damn lot. Everything.
Pressed as to what relaxations of law he’d like to see, Snowdon said that most of the legislation of the past 40 years would have to go, and that in his view it should be legal to smoke any natural plant, although such legalisation would have to be phased in gradually, because people had become so infantilised.
I suppose what surprised me most of all was that Chris Snowdon had been invited onto the Moral Maze at all, as a smoker and the author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. But I was also a bit surprised at some of the things the panel said. I was surprised that the antismoking Michael Portillo saw plain packaging of cigarettes as a "restriction of freedom" (yet had welcomed the far more restrictive smoking ban 4 years ago). I was surprised that (presumably antismoking) Michael Buerk suggested the word "stigmatise" to Chris Snowdon. And I was surprised that antismoking Melanie Phillips found the "choice architects" working in Cameron’s administration Orwellian. It suggested that opinion among non-smokers may have shifted over the past few years, and they’re becoming a bit worried about losing freedoms.
It was a welcome debate in some ways, which was supposed to be about nudging, but spent more of its time on smoking. But for myself, for the most part I thought it was a bit of an academic discussion among the panelists about something that didn’t affect them at all. They weren’t being demonised. They weren’t being excluded. They weren’t being stigmatised. They weren’t being denormalised. And for the most part they were quite comfortable with nudging or even bullying people to act in what they saw as their best interests. They hadn’t been expelled from society. They hadn’t lost most of their friends. They hadn’t been fired from their jobs, or evicted from their homes, or refused medical treatment.
It’s why I don’t listen to the Moral Maze. They’ll pick some recondite moral dilemma or other, stir it around in their teacups for half an hour, and then depart, job done and lolly pocketed.
And if I’d been there, I’d probably have started shouting at them, swearing at them, and punching them. Because I don’t think there’s any debate going on here. There never has been. It’s just a war now. It’s smokers against antismokers. And if I ever find myself in front of one of these antismoking bastards, I’ll want to kill them then and there.
Which is probably why I wasn’t invited, and never will be, and will never want to be.