I was reading the health warning on a tobacco packet today. It’s not something I often do, because I keep my tobacco in a tin. I only ever get to read the health warnings when I refill the tin. And even then, I usually don’t notice them. Anyway, it said:
Smoking seriously harms you and others around you.
And I thought: That’s not true! But as I read it, I was also struck by the astonishing certainty of the statement. In the past, 10 or 20 years ago, it would have probably read: Smoking can harm you and others around you. There would have been an trace of uncertainty, a caveat.
It’s one of the things that’s changed in the past decade or two. Tobacco Control has become very, very certain, and very, very aggressive. It’s no longer that smoking might kill you, but that smoking will kill you. It’s no longer that you should choose to quit smoking, but that you must be forced to quit smoking.
What’s changed? What have they found out in the last decade or two that’s new? All tobacco research is inherently probabilistic. There’s no certainty about any of its findings. So why has uncertainty been dispensed with, and replaced with certainty?
And why does everyone – or almost everyone – believe them? Why do governments and businesses and millions of ordinary people all believe what they’re told?
The answer, I suspect, is that what began as a quiet, almost whispering, campaign against tobacco 60 years ago has actually turned out to be remarkably successful. As I recollect, it mostly consisted of articles in newspapers or magazines. Often in Reader’s Digest. I remember reading them, with a slight frisson of fear, before I started smoking. There seemed to be at least one antismoking article in every single Reader’s Digest. They usually featured doctors and research findings. They were very low-key, and matter-of-fact. You’d be reading something about how someone had escaped from a sinking ship, or a burning building, and you’d turn the page and start on an article that said that smoking was the cause of a global lung cancer epidemic, nicely written in the anodyne Reader’s Digest house style.
And I think it was this steady drip-drip of antismoking articles that gradually turned people against smoking. Because back then people trusted doctors, and researchers, and scientists. And after they’d read that smoking caused lung cancer about fifty times, they gradually started to believe it. And they’d quit smoking. And after they’d read it another fifty times, they’d be completely convinced. It was quiet, slow, insistent, and effective conditioning. And it worked brilliantly, particularly on people who read lots of newspapers and magazines – like the middle classes. And it was these people who were to fill the media, the professions, and the political class.
These were also my friends. And they were steadily giving up smoking, one by one, from the 1960s onwards.
And when the middle classes had been successfully scared into quitting smoking, it became possible to ramp up the conviction quotient, and the volume. A whole army of people had been won over to the antismoking or non-smoking side. All concerned were utterly convinced that smoking caused lung cancer, and a lot more beside. They could be counted on to help advance the antismoking cause.
Now, of course, it’s hurricane force. There are highly aggressive antismoking ads on TV and radio and the internet. And there are loud, black-and-white certainties printed on every cigarette packet, with hideous accompanying pornography to ram home the message.
They seem to think that if they just keep repeating the same message, louder and louder, eventually everyone will get the message. Because that’s what had happened before: repeat it enough times, and people believe it.
But I think it’s now become entirely counter-productive. I think the best antismoking messages were those quiet, well-written, Reader’s Digest articles which got under your radar, and reached you just when you were most open to suggestion – when you were actively reading. They certainly used to get under my skin.
And I think this is probably the main reason why the media, and the intelligentsia, and the government, and business leaders, are all in the antismoking camp: they’re made up of people who had also read those little articles in Reader’s Digest or Woman’s Own or Vanity Fair or Cosmopolitan. And the quiet, insistent message had got under their skin too. And it had gradually congealed into complete conviction. They’d become true believers, and attained perfect certainty. How can you argue against people possessed with perfect certainty?
So why didn’t I become a true believer too? Probably because, back in the 1960s, I lived in the house of an antismoking doctor, and I was permanently inoculated by him against all antismoking zealotry. For I can still hear him ranting against the filthy habit, like Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, in a distant room inside his big house. There was nothing quiet or insistent or reasonable about that voice: it was the voice of some terrible insanity. He was a man possessed. For, as I scuttled terrified upstairs to my room, I passed by him, standing in an empty room, shouting.
It was after that experience that I started smoking. And that experience was why I started smoking. For I had been made to realise that what underlay the antismoking ideology was not reason or care or compassion, but a kind of insanity. And that therefore smoking was most likely completely harmless.
And maybe it’s also because I’m never certain about anything. There’s always an edge of uncertainty in my mind about everything. There’s always a strand of doubt. I will never be perfectly certain about anything. Perfect certainty is not available to ordinary humanity: it is the attribute of gods. Or demons.