I’ve been thinking today how my opinions about the health risks of tobacco have changed over my lifetime.
I used not to have an opinion about it. But occasionally I’d encounter rather scary articles in newspapers or magazines about top doctors issuing warnings on cancer and smoking. And cancer was a really scary disease. So these articles would give me the willies, and I’d go and read something else instead.
I don’t remember having any discussions with anyone about it. But I think pretty much everyone felt the same way I did. They didn’t want to talk about it, because it was scary. I don’t know what it is about cancer, that it used to fill me with nameless dread in ways that no other disease ever did.
But I didn’t know anyone who’d actually got lung cancer. I didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who’d got lung cancer.
The first antismoker I ever came across was Dr W. And I rapidly decided that he was insane. He hated tobacco with a ferocious intensity, but never offered a single rational reason for such hatred. I sometimes think that such people have also experienced the same nameless dread as I did – except, unlike me, they never shrugged it off. Dr W was probably the unhappiest man I’ve ever met. He was incapable of smiling. And he scared the wits out of me even more than cancer did.
Which was in part why I took up smoking not long afterwards, reasoning that if the nutty Dr W was so opposed to smoking, it must be pretty harmless. But for Dr W, I might never have taken up smoking.
But I was still a bit worried, and a bit scared, and I wasn’t surprised or distressed when friends gave up smoking.
Some years later I got talking to an old friend about it – a smoker like me – and asked him if he thought smoking caused lung cancer.
“No,” Mike said. “It doesn’t. But it wrecks your lungs.”
He was the first person I ever encountered who didn’t believe the lung cancer scare. But he was a highly unorthodox man, in almost every possible way, and so I wasn’t too surprised.
The simple truth of the matter was that I’d not thought about it all very much, or even at all, and so I believed pretty much what everybody else believed. Because that’s generally what I believe when I haven’t thought about something.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people not thinking very much about things like tobacco. Why the hell should they? There are plenty of other things to think about. We can’t all think about everything. Most of the time, on most subjects, we’re on autopilot, and most of our opinions are ones we’ve acquired secondhand. I’d guess that 99.99% of my opinions are secondhand opinions – things I’ve read somewhere or heard somewhere. I still tie my shoelaces the way my mother taught me.
Things only began to change in 2004 when I first heard of the prospect of a smoking ban, and the perils of passive smoking. And since I’d spent my whole life wreathed in smoke, I couldn’t believe there was any peril at all in that. Inhaling smoke from a cigarette, yes, but not somebody else’s wafting smoke. I was immediately sceptical.
And I’ve been getting ever more sceptical with every year that’s passed since. And I’ve thought about it a lot. I’m now more or less inclined to think that not only is there no threat from passive smoking, but there’s also no threat from active smoking either. I’ve become almost completely sceptical about all claims made against tobacco.
A graph showing my changing opinion would be like one of those global warming hockey sticks. More or less unchanging throughout most of my life, and then going through the top of the page in the last few years.
And the same seems to have been happening with a lot of other people. Most of the people reading this blog are likely to be newly deeply sceptical of most tobacco health scares too. And ten or twenty years ago, they probably were hardly sceptical at all. And, like me, they may not have thought about it much either. They can correct me if I’m wrong.
Which is very interesting. Because it means that, after decades of “everybody knowing” that smoking caused lung cancer and almost every other disease too, and just at the moment in time when the war on smoking has ratcheted up to blitzkrieg levels, lots of people are ceasing to believe a word of it.
One of the most interesting and surprising things that’s coming out of my own personal survey of smokers is that nearly 80% of them have come to distrust experts, and in many cases to deeply distrust them. I hadn’t expected that.
Nevertheless, this is still a minority – albeit a growing minority – of the population. I’d guess that most people still believe the experts and the doctors. And clearly the government does. And the mass media too.
So what’s going on in most people’s heads? The answer is probably: not much. No more than was going on in my head about it all for the first 55+ years of my life. They haven’t thought about it. And, like me, they believe what everybody else believes.
But… these days, we’ve just discovered that what everybody else believes is changing very rapidly. Or what some of them believe. And so all the people who believe what everybody else believes must also be becoming just a tad sceptical. After all, their opinions are going to be something like the average of everybody else’s. And the more sceptics and ‘deniers’ like me that they encounter, either online or in person, the more their opinions are likely to inch in my direction. Just going out and polling people with my survey, I’m having a minuscule impact.
So it’s most likely that most people – the people who don’t think about it all much – are actually becoming slightly sceptical. But not yet so sceptical as to reject the received wisdom.
And if that’s happening then there’s quite likely to be a ‘tipping point’ when suddenly all the unthinking people, who drink in everybody else’s opinion, suddenly go from being true believers to outright sceptics.
And it could happen very suddenly. It could happen very suddenly because such people are gauging average opinion, holding a finger to the wind, and because they’re all doing the same thing they’re most likely to all decide at the exact same time that the wind has changed.
So, although the numbers of sceptics is mounting, but public opinion doesn’t seem to be changing much, it may well change, and change very suddenly.
Of course, antismoking professionals are also able to gauge and influence opinion. Antismoking TV and radio ads probably have a small impact (just like the scary newspaper and magazine articles I used to read). And it may in fact be that the antismokers are well aware of the mounting scepticism, and are acting to counteract it. After all, why run expensive ad campaigns to convince people of something they already believe, or get them to do something they want to do anyway?
I haven’t watched TV or listened to the radio for years, so I never see it or hear it now anyway. What I do remember is that antismoking ads were multiplying at the exact same time my scepticism was rocketing.
If the money ever runs out for antismoking ads, chances are that scepticism will increase rapidly, and the tipping point will be reached quicker.
We smokers tend to believe that we’re getting nowhere, and we’re not shifting public opinion at all, because we’re out-gunned by by Tobacco Control’s well-financed media onslaught. But we may be completely wrong. In fact, the reverse might be true, and Tobacco Control is becoming increasingly desperate as it watches public opinion slowly slipping away from it. And that’s why they’re always coming out with new scares, like those Nazi super-weapons launched against an enemy that was winning.