If I have one big regret in life, it’s that I never saw the smoking bans coming. And, in retrospect, I should have seen them. After all, medical experts had been saying for years that smoking caused lung cancer. And I did actually notice the first salami-slice smoking ban on London Underground in 1970 or so, but it ran no alarm bells. I also noticed the multiplying bans on London Transport and British Rail. But they didn’t ring any alarm bells either.
And when I read in the Independent in November 2004 that the BMA’s Sir Charles George was calling for a public smoking ban in England, I remember thinking “Well, that’s never going to happen!” Although the alarms did actually go off that time, and set me thinking a bit. But I didn’t really believe that there would be a pub smoking ban. Particularly when no political party was suggesting such a thing. So I ignored the alarm bells. And when the Labour party broke its manifesto promise, and called for a free vote in parliament on a smoking ban, I was convinced that MPs would vote against any ban. They were sensible people after all, weren’t they? And even when MPs voted strongly in favour of a ban, I thought that protests from pubs and restaurants would water it down. And when no protests materialised, it was only on 1 July 2007 that I finally realised that it actually was going to happen. And had in fact happened.
I suppose I simply regarded smoking in pubs as a sort of unalterable fact of life. Like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Or the Grand National at Aintree. I simply couldn’t imagine pubs without smoking.
But there had been plenty of other signs and omens which I had also ignored. When I was 17, and my parents were in Brazil, I lived in the household of the antismoking Dr W. I’d never come across an antismoker in my life before, and I so regarded him as a lone, harmless nutter. It never occurred to this Clouseau that – a bit like rats or ants – if there was one antismoking nutjob doctor about, there might be quite a few more floating around somewhere. And there were. The medical profession was crawling with them.
And then there was the slow decimation of my smoking friends, as one by one they gave up smoking. When I took up smoking at around age 20 (largely thanks to Dr W), pretty much all my friends smoked. But 30 years later this had fallen to 10% or 20% of them. Did Clouseau notice that? Well, he did, but it didn’t alarm him one bit. He just went back to sleep. Although he did get rather alarmed when ex-smoking or non-smoking friends started banning smoking in their own homes (long before 2007).
If I’d sat down one day in, say, 1995, and added up the signs and omens, I think I would have realised that there was a process unfolding. The multiplying incremental smoking bans, the steady reduction in the numbers of smokers, the private household smoking bans. Everything was getting in line for something much bigger. It was just that public smoking bans were unthinkable to me. And remained unthinkable until they came into force.
But if I had managed to foresee what was likely to happen, could I have done anything about it? Well, yes, I could have. I could have begun to mount the sort of resistance that I mount now. It would have been a lot harder, because back then I hadn’t actually read any tobacco research. But I could have at very least been dismissive of the fear of smoking that was gradually mounting among my friends. And I wasn’t at all dismissive. I used to cheerfully accept my friends’ worries.
Resistance should have been mounted 20 or 30 years ago. And in some ways, mounting a resistance now is a bit like finally waking up to the fact of Occupation, when there are Nazi tanks neatly parked in the town square, and Nazi party members in town hall, and Nazi flags fluttering on the flagpoles.
But resistance has to start somewhere. And it’s better late than never.
And in some ways, the first task is to blunt the air of invincibility and inevitability that the antismokers have acquired over the past few decades. I read recently somewhere that it was “inevitable” that tobacco would be completely prohibited sometime fairly soon. And while people think that something is inevitable, they won’t resist it. And a lot of people do seem to see total prohibition as inevitable. I suspect that lots of politicians cave in to the antismokers because they think that they’re unstoppable.
There was no real resistance to antismoking 10 years ago. But there is a Resistance now. And it’s a nascent global resistance. It’s just not a very effective resistance. But there are some notable members of it – like Nigel Farage and UKIP. But the fact that there is a resistance at all, where once there was none, signals that the antismokers are not quite in such total control as they once were, and their further encroachments aren’t quite so inevitable as they would like everyone to believe.
If there are any further regrets that I have, they’re all regrets of the same sort. Of not taking notice of gradual changes in public opinion. Of being completely oblivious. For example, environmentalism of one sort or another was a fringe enthusiasm in the 60s and 70s, and now that also has metamorphosed into yet another juggernaut. And that should have been predictable as well.
Perhaps everything should have been predictable?