In common with DP, Taking Liberties, Chris Snowdon, and others, I’ve been taking a bit of interest in the Independent’s ‘exclusive’ on how Philip Morris have been trying to use FOI to get Stirling University to produce data on studies into children’s attitudes to smoking and cigarette packaging. What interested me most were these sections (my emphases added):
The demands from the tobacco company, made using the UK’s Freedom of Information law, have coincided with an internet hate campaign targeted at university researchers involved in smoking studies.
One of the academics has received anonymous abusive phone calls at her home at night. She believes they are prompted by an organised campaign by the tobacco industry to discredit her work, although there is no evidence that the cigarette companies are directly responsible.
Academics studying the smoking behaviour of British teenagers and adults have found themselves to be the targets of vitriolic attacks by the pro-smoking lobby.
University researchers have been sent hate emails and some have even received anonymous phone calls, which usually come after a series of blogs posted on pro-smoking websites, including at least one which is linked to the tobacco industry.
Linda Bauld, professor of socio-management at Stirling University’s Institute for Social Marketing, says she was unprepared for the scale of the personal attacks aimed at discrediting her work on smoking behaviour and anti-smoking legislation.
“I’ve had a series of anonymous calls starting about a year ago,” Professor Bauld said. “These are phone calls in the evening when I’m at home with my children. It’s an unpleasant experience.
“It’s happened six or seven times and it’s always an unknown number. It’s usually after stuff has been posted on one of the main smokers’ websites.
“They don’t leave their name, they just say things like ‘Keep taking the money’, and ‘Who are you to try to intervene in other peoples’ lives’, using a couple of profanities.”
I think the main thing that comes out of this is that academics like Linda Bauld have been reading pro-smoking blogs. And since I write a pro-smoking blog, she may well read mine. And in fact she may well be reading this very post. So the rest of this post will be addressed to her. I’ll do my level best not to be vitriolic.
So sit down, Linda, and listen very carefully.
Firstly, there is no organised campaign. Because there are no organisers, least of all the tobacco companies. The internet doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t have a command hierarchy, like in your line of work, where I believe you’re a university professor, which is a bit more senior than a lecturer or a post-grad researcher (like I once was). We pro-smoking bloggers aren’t part of any organisation. We’re all different people. Quite often we don’t agree about all sorts of things. We’re a loose, swirling cloud of individuals. A swarm.
Part of your problem is that you’ve become so fixated on the tobacco companies that Tobacco Control has been combating for the past 50 years that you haven’t noticed that this swarm has begun to emerge, in the form of the millions of smokers worldwide who are feeling the impact of smoking bans on their social lives, their families, their jobs, their self-esteem, and their wallets. The only real connection they have with tobacco companies is that they consume their product. They have about as much connection with Big Tobacco as the average housewife has with Sainsbury’s or Tesco or any other large company whose products they purchase. They don’t work for them. They don’t take money from them. They don’t take orders from them. They don’t take a lead from them.
So disabuse yourself of that idea: we’re not an organisation. And we’re not being led by any tobacco company.
If anything happens on these blogs and forums and newsletters, it’s not something that’s been organised. It hasn’t. It’s just that one person writes something, and somebody else reads it, and responds to it, and so do other people, and the next thing they’re all writing about the same thing or the same person (like, f’rinstance, you). Much like people sitting in a pub quite often all talk about the same thing without anyone actually saying, “Right ho, everyone: The next topic of discussion is Manchester United.” You may have yourself actually experienced these occasions: they’re called conversations. And they sort of just happen, without any planning, or memos, or text messages. And that’s what just happens in the big swirling conversation that is the blogosphere. It looks organised, but it isn’t. You’re very far from alone in thinking that it’s organised: Heck, even the Chinese Communist party thinks it’s organised.
And secondly, this swarm is growing. Because there are a lot of angry smokers around these days. And not just smokers. Quite a few people in the swarm don’t smoke at all.
And a lot of these people are very angry. Some of them have lost their jobs because of smoking bans. Some have been refused medical treatment because of smoking bans. Some (like me) have lost most of their friends since the smoking ban came into force, simply because there was nowhere warm and welcoming to meet them any more. And some have committed suicide. And some just don’t like what’s being done to smokers.
And thirdly, there are a hell of a lot of them. There are about 1,300 million smokers in the world, at a conservative estimate. And none of them likes what’s being done to them. Because, let’s face it, no smoker like smoking bans any more than turkeys like Christmas. They don’t like being banned, excluded, denormalised, vilified, and demonised. Most people don’t. They may not be equally angry, but they’re all gradually getting angrier. And when they’ve got angry enough, they’ll join the growing, circling swarm.
You think your enemy is Big Tobacco. But those days are over. Your enemy now is the ever-growing swarm of angry smokers from all over the world, gradually coalescing into a super-swarm.
And they all hate you. And people like you. They hate your guts. They really do.
If you haven’t noticed them, it’s probably because you’ve been studiously ignoring them. You don’t allow either smokers or tobacco companies to attend any of your numerous conferences. You don’t want to know what they think. You see smokers as mindless drug addicts, hooked on tobacco. The only thing you want to do to them is make them quit smoking. Nothing else matters to you. Not what they think or what they feel or what they believe or what they say. You have dehumanised them. You have reduced them to so many rats to be nudged and goaded and electrocuted into blind obedience.
I’d like to suggest that this was a mistake on your part, and that smokers are actually as fully human as anyone else, and as intelligent as anyone else, and as aware as anyone else what is being done to them. It wasn’t your personal mistake. It was the mistake of the whole Tobacco Control movement, from the very top to the very bottom. You think you’re dealing with rats, but you’re not. You’re dealing with people who are just as smart as you are, just as knowledgeable, and just as determined.
Those nasty emails and phone calls you’ve been getting weren’t organised or planned by anyone. I shouldn’t worry about them too much. It’s just the trailing edge of the swarm, like the zephyrs on the perimeter of a hurricane. But they’re not going to stop. They’re going to become more and more frequent. You should start worrying when bricks start getting thrown through your window, or messages daubed on your door. They won’t be planned or organised either. They’ll just happen.
You look worried. You should be. Not now, but soon. For it’s not too late to do something about it, to keep the growing swarm from your doorstep.
Here’s my suggestion. Announce that you’ve had a change of heart about smoking and smokers. Tell people that you’ve begun to believe that they’re people just like other people, and they should be treated with respect, and with dignity – and they’re not just filthy addicts to be herded like animals. Write to the Minister of Health and tell him that you think that the current antismoking campaign has become ‘counter-productive’ (or something like that. I’m sure you’d be able to come up with the right formula of words). Suggest that the smoking ban should be relaxed, because it’s doing far more harm than good. Set out to persuade your colleagues of the merit of your new arguments. Call for a ‘rethink’. Or a ‘moratorium’.
That way – and that way only – you’ll maybe calm the angry swarm. And smokers like me will admire you for your insight and your courage. And they’ll welcome you like Christians welcome gadarene swine. Or is it lost sons? Or prodigal sheep? Something like that, anyway.
And if that doesn’t work, then resign from your job, and do something different. I’m sure you’re highly employable, and have lots of friends and contacts. They’re opening up a new Sainsbury’s round here soon. I’m sure you’d make a great check-out girl.
Better still would be to leave the country, and go somewhere where antismokers are admired – like Bhutan. Or maybe Nepal. That way, you’ll be out of the country and maybe even living under a new name when your old university department gets torched, and your old colleagues are strung up from lamp posts.
A few years ago the antismoking organisation ASH thoughtfully issued a warning to businesses in Britain that they could face prosecution if they didn’t act to stop smoking on their premises. It would therefore only be equally considerate to offer a counter-warning. Count yourself as having been warned. And offered friendly, helpful guidance. A bit like the friendly, helpful guidance you offer smokers.
Think of it as a kind of voodoo warning.
For if you don’t take steps to remedy the situation, that swarm of angry smokers is just going to get bigger and bigger, and more and more menacing, and ultimately far more powerful than Big Tobacco ever was. It’ll become an unstoppable, elemental force. And nobody will be any more in control of it then, or able to organise it, than they are now. Not even your friends in Westminster.
So think it over. You’ve still got time. And if you like, you can even leave a comment on my blog with any questions you might have.
So there you are. I’m done. And not a drop of vitriol!