Two Antismokers I’ve Known

I suppose I’ve been lucky in my life (or maybe unlucky) to have known a couple of active antismokers. By that I don’t mean hand-wavers and coughers, but people who were professionally active in the antismoking cause: movers and shakers.

The first of these was Dr W, in whose house I resided for some years in the mid-60s (while I was at university and my parents were living abroad).

He wasn’t an evil man. In fact, I think he was honest and sincere and totally trustworthy and decent in (almost) every way. It was in part thanks to him, after all, that I was living under his roof with his wife and children.

But he was a very strange man. And the whole time that I knew him I was utterly scared stiff of him. I never felt comfortable in his presence. It was perhaps because he was a singularly joyless man. I never once heard him laugh, nor saw him smile – although he could feign both in a sardonic fashion. As best I could see, he took no pleasure whatsoever in life. He would come home from his job in the evening, and go straight out and work in his vegetable patch in the garden, and then when it was dark come in and work on a variety of chores, mending this or that. He never watched television or even listened to the radio. He never read newspapers or books. He never played any games of any sort. He never went out to parties or to pubs or restaurants. He would occasionally take his family on holiday, but I always had the sense that he did so for their sake, not his own. Left to his own devices, I think he would have planted another few rows of runner beans, and relaid the gravel in the drive. And if he wasn’t busy in his garden, he’d be attending meetings at the BMA, where he was something of a force.

He never drank anything either, except a small glass of sherry on Christmas Day. And he didn’t smoke. In fact, smoking seemed to be the only subject that truly animated him, because from time to time he would inveigh against the “filthy, filthy habit” like a Presbyterian minister preaching against sin and the devil. It was quite shocking, and rather terrifying, to witness him at full bore. His hatred of smoking was visceral.

I fairly rapidly decided that he was insane. Not insane in the sectionable ga-ga sense, but definitely a screw loose. Or rather, a screw too tightly screwed in to ever be unscrewed. The whole time I lived under his roof, I avoided speaking to him unless I absolutely had to (unlike his wife and lovely daughters, who used to apologise for him, and tell me that his bark was worse than his bite).

He was the first antismoker I ever encountered. And one of the reasons I took up smoking a few years later was because his insane hatred of smoking struck me as being a perverse justification for doing so: it couldn’t be that bad if such a complete nutter was against it, I reasoned.

For there was nothing rational about his hatred of smoking. He didn’t ever produce any of the Doll and Hill research studies (although I’m sure they were somewhere in among his papers), or any other study. He would simply rant against smoking, as if possessed. In fact, there was no “as if” about it: he was a man possessed.

I more or less forgot about him after I ceased to live under his roof. The last time I ever saw him was when he was being interviewed on TV in his pinstripe suit outside the BMA. He died about 10 years ago. And a couple of weeks back I found an obituary of him online, in which I discovered that for much of his life he’d worked for the WHO, and was a fairly senior figure within it.

But for the smoking ban, I would have completely forgotten him. But now he seems to have come back to life (or risen from the dead). And I can still hear his grating, musicless voice raised in anger. I have no doubt that he was one of the doctors who worked tirelessly for smoking to be banned. As such, he has become for me the very personification of the antismoker. He is what I fight against.

The contrast with the other antismoker in my life could not be greater. For she was one of my greatest friends. So much so, that we went on holiday together, just the two of us, to France and Greece and Portugal. She had a lovely, beaming smile. She was something of a party-goer, and dressed in a rather bohemian manner, had lots of rather risqué friends. After she left university, where she’d studied French, Politics, and Philosophy, she worked at a variety of good causes (including a spell at Amnesty International), before ending up working for a few local authorities on “health inequality”. I was never quite clear what this was about, and never inquired. She was not in the least bit antismoking, and never complained about my smoking (or anybody else’s). I often smoked sitting at her kitchen table.

The last time I saw her (by which time I’d known her for over 30 years) was in 2005 at a birthday bash thrown by one of our mutual friends. I was put under oath by our host to on no account to light up indoors. And I spent much of the evening sitting outside in the garden with a few other smokers, experiencing for the first time (and with an uneasy sense of foreboding) the absolute division between the smokers outside and the non-smokers inside.

But when in 2007 the smoking ban came into force, she was the recipient of a letter from me complaining vociferously about it. She sent no immediate reply, but at Christmas sent a card in which she cryptically remarked that she was currently conducting research into smoking cessation, and furthermore had been doing so for some 25 years, on and off.

This was a tremendous shock to me. It now became clear to me at last what the “health inequality” business had all been about. And I had never known. Or perhaps it had just gone in one ear and out of the other one evening in a smoky pub.

It put me in a quandary. By 2008, I had already been engaged in the war against antismokers for 3 or 4 years, and Dr W had already risen from his grave to haunt me. It was a bit like learning (and I’m sure this must have happened in Nazi Germany many times) that one of one’s oldest chums, with whom one had spent many delightful hours, was now an Obersturmbannführer in the SS.

I mulled it over for almost a year. I knew that if I saw her again, there would be only one topic of conversation. Our friendship could never continue as it had before, because we were now fighting in opposing armies.

But eventually I decided that, rather than abandon the matter there, I should give her an opportunity to expand upon the matter at greater length than she had in her Christmas card. And perhaps, when she did so, I might learn that she was alive to the social and moral dilemmas posed by her work, and aware of the limitations of the existing research, and – who knows – maybe even that she was perhaps a bit disenchanted by it all, and was thinking of doing something else. So I sent her an email, with an innocuous inquiry about her work.

To my surprise, a lengthy reply came back the very next day. She said she agreed with the smoking ban, and said that most smokers wanted to give up smoking (although she conceded that I might be one of those who did not). She wondered if she might be a little hypocritical, but eventually concluded that she wasn’t.

I read her email with a sinking heart. There was no recognition in it whatsoever of any moral or political dimensions to her work. There was no recognition of the social exclusion of smokers. There was a lot of boilerplate antismoking dogma. It was quite clear that she was fully engaged in her research, and had no intention of doing anything else in the immediate future.

Over the next week I composed a long and impassioned email, complete with numerous references (there had been none in her email). Almost the whole of it was an attack on antismokers, rather than on her. But at the end I invited her to let me know when she had stopped persecuting smokers.

There was no reply. I have not spoken to her or heard from her since. Nor she from me.

I’ve been left puzzled that, for all her certainties about smoking, she had never once talked to me about it, in all the 30+ years I had known her. Me, the lifelong smoker. But she was someone who drew a strict division between her professional life and her social life. She did not mix business with pleasure. She didn’t talk shop. She would, it seems, quite cheerfully dance the night away at smoky parties, and the next morning go back to work to stop exactly that sort of thing from ever happening. She was two people, and I only knew one of them. It was something which she perhaps hinted at when she cheerily told me once that I wasn’t one of her “serious friends”.

And I suppose that I’m a little surprised that she wasn’t professionally interested in me, when I emerged as wholly and ferociously opposed to the smoking ban. For she could have used our contretemps as an opportunity to learn something about how smokers felt: it was her profession, after all. I’ve occasionally had the opposite thought: that I might have used the occasion to ask her some hard questions (other than those unanswered in my email), and learn something about antismokers. Perhaps she couldn’t take me any more seriously than she ever had. Antismokers never take smokers seriously.

But even now she’s gone, I can’t bring myself to hate her. For I always remember her with her dazzling smile. And even now I can’t really even think of her as being an antismoker, although she obviously is, and had also been when we sat together at table in the sun on a Greek island many years ago.

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12 Responses to Two Antismokers I’ve Known

  1. Junican says:

    I have a feeling that, had you tried to tie her down for actualities, she would have refused to discuss the matter on your terms. It would have been a case of “the science is settled – ‘Carthago delendum est’ (if I have that right!)”

    Smoking is a filthy habit and Tobacco Companies must be destroyed – end of story. If that means destroying pubs and society, so be it. Nothing is more important than destroying the Tobacco Industry, regardless of the economic effect or jobs or anything else. The whole thinking is religion at its worst, isn’t it? It requires the Inquisition and thumb screws. Needless to say, the arch QUACKS are glorifying the God of Health – and lining their own pockets at the same time.

    Oh, by the way. What is the process to put the e-petition into one’s side bar? Trying to use the WordPress instructions is like trying to wade through glue.

  2. Leg-iron says:

    You are more tolerant than me, Frank. I still have the legacy of Italian temper and grudges that are held to the end of time. There are pubs I will never revisit even if the smoking ban were lifted and when I found out an old friend was a Labour party activist, I have not spoken to him since and will not again. We Mediterranians can be a bit volatile on some issues. The Welsh part of me adds a ‘fuck-you’ attitude to the mix.

    It’s not really about smoking any more. It’s about far more than that now.

  3. Walt says:

    Part B above reminds me of the classic “Godfather” line: “It’s not personal it’s just business.” Which meant you could put out a contract on a ‘friend” and not even be aware of the cognitive dissonance. A thug’s brand of Doublethink.

    Going further, except for the genuine and quite personal haters, it occurs to me the Aunts willfully blind themselves to the personal part of their business. Self-appointed do-gooders, their war is against smoking (or secondhand smoke) and they protect themselves from knowing it’s actually a war against– not only smokers– but quite particularly, that always-helpful man in the hardware store, the best high school teacher they ever had, and John and Jane and Lizzie and Frank. Their focus is too narrow and intense to imagine the human (social and moral) pain they’re inflicting on actual individual people in the name of their goal. They are, in a way, like the frothing anti-semites who quite sincerely preface their rants (or their demands for ghettoization) with “Listen–some of my best friends are Jews…”

  4. Junican says:

    Managed it, Frank! I got the button into the sidebar.
    I did not need to write any HTML. I found some instructions:
    1. I right-clicked the image in Taking Libs. Clicked “Save picture as…” – which put the image into ‘My Pictures’.
    2. Opened Dashboard and clicked Media. Clicked ‘Add New’. ‘Browse’ took me to ‘My Pictures’. Clicked e-petition image and then clicked ‘open’ (the picture did not actually appear on the screen). Clicked ‘upload’ on Media screen and picture was added to ‘Media Library’
    3. Back to Dashboard – Appearance – Image. Clicked ‘Image’ and dragged it to ‘Sidebar’.

    As you know, in ‘Image’ you are presented with a box to complete. The problem bit in that box is ‘IMAGE URL’. Now, by chance, I had found another instruction which told me that the ‘Image URL’ is the same thing as ‘File URL’! So….
    4. Back to Media Library and clicked on File Title ( e-pet_butt-125sq) of saved image in library. This brings up a box with details of the file in it. At the bottom, is “File URL”. I copied the URL, went back to ‘Image’ in Dashboard – Widgets and pasted that URL into the ‘Image URL’ box.
    5. I copied and pasted the URL of the e-petition into the ‘Link URL’ box at the bottom
    6. I then clicked ‘Save’.

    Lo and behold! The linked image appeared in the sidebar!

    I have copied the above into a word doc on my computer – I will certainly forget how to do it.

  5. Jax says:

    I remember a study some years prior to the implementation of the ban in which non-smokers, when asked about the hypothetical implementation of smoking bans (i.e. pertaining to all those stereotypical smokers that they didn’t know) most were in favour (although far less than ASH’s figures would imply – I think the true figure was around just over half), but when asked if they would like a smoking ban somewhere where they went personally, like their local pub or their workplace, there was only a tiny, tiny number who favoured it – I think the support level dropped off to something like about 2% or something equally piffling. The study thus drew the conclusion that although people might support the idea of smoking bans applied towards people that they didn’t know, they really didn’t like the idea at all of stopping their own friends and relatives from smoking around them. But it’s true of most things, though, isn’t it? And I think it’s one of the biggest indications around as to how dim, or just mentally lazy, the majority of people in the UK are these days. It’s like the death penalty – lots of people say that they’re all for it and are all full of big words and brave-sounding threats – but they’d be the first people to scream “mitigating factors” or “self defence” if someone they knew and liked was facing the hangman’s noose.

    I think it’s one reason why support for all things anti-smoking has dropped off so sharply since the ban was implemented, particularly amongst non-smokers. The reality simply hasn’t matched they way they believed it would be, and it’s been something of a rather embarrassing reality-check for many non-smokers.

    But re your friend, you have to bear in mind that anti-smoking – as has been pointed out many times by many people – operates in almost exactly the same way as a religiously-based cult, and people who are sucked into it become thoroughly brainwashed and utterly convinced of the rightness of their “cause,” no matter how extreme and OTT it may seem to everyone else. As anyone who has dealt with people who have been inveigled into a cult will tell you, it takes years of in-depth work and the breaking down of massively strong barriers to de-programme a cult’s influence – and that’s just people who become involved in cults like the Moonies, which society generally views as rather odd or downright harmful – there’s absolutely no hope of rescuing your friend all the time the cult that she’s involved with is state-sponsored, government-approved and not even seen, by the majority of people, as a cult at all. If it’s any consolation, there’s probably little that you could have done beforehand to save her – indeed there is little that any of us can do to save the people that we know who have been sucked into the anti-smoking vortex, unless we happen to be trained de-programming psychiatrists and the followers themselves come asking for our help (which is unlikely – cult members see themselves as members of their own free will rather than brainwashed, duped or used by those above them, as they actually invariably are, which is why they so often have to be kidnapped by worried relatives and shut away with a shrink for several months of therapy).

    But being vulnerable to membership of any cult is a specific form of mental vulnerability which some people have and some people don’t – and there’s no way of telling beforehand who is and who isn’t vulnerable in this way. Some very outgoing, seemingly confident people have it, whereas some introspective, quiet people don’t. There aren’t any rules to it. You say that for many years your friend said nothing, well, that’s because cult programming is cunning. It’s built up, brick by brick, little by little, without the members realising what’s going on – and it does take time. The chances are that in those early days she actually wasn’t as anti-smoking as she is now – that’s why she never commented or objected to your smoking until the latter few years.

    So why should you hate your friend? Well, you shouldn’t. She truly was the lovely lady with the dazzling smile whose company you enjoyed for many years – but she has a mental vulnerability which has been taken advantage of by a group of single-minded, determined and very ruthless people. Those are the people you should hate, not your friend. And sadly, unless/until she herself recognises what she’s got herself embroiled with, then that person has gone as much as if she’d been run over by a bus. And, for the record, with a few years now between you, I bet if you met her now, being a long-term member of the anti-smoking cult would have wiped away all trace of the lively, laughing friend you knew. In fact, I suspect she’d bear a much greater resemblance to Dr W that you would ever have imagined possible in the early years of your friendship with her. Because that’s what cults do – they take away one person and replace it with another.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I think that I indeed see her as belonging to a cult. There seem to have been a lot of cults of one sort or other over the past 40 years, very often centred upon Indian gurus. I’ve never had any time for any of them. The antismoking cult is a much older and established cult. I doubt if cult members think of themselves as belonging to a cult at all. They probably think they are more rational and informed than other people.

      I think global warming alarmism is a cult too.

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