Purely out of slight interest while eating this evening, I was watching the BBC’s Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History on BBC iplayer. It recounted the story of how, during the 19th century, all sorts of ways for saving the lives of shipwrecked ships’ passengers and crews were gradually introduced in Britain, ranging from mortars firing ropes to sinking ships, shore-based lifeboats, lifebelts, weather forecasts, and more.
And many lives were indeed saved. In one year alone there were two thousand ships lost in the North Sea alone, with 20,000 sailors and passengers perishing.
As the programme was ending, and I was feeling glad that so many lives had been saved, it occurred to me that antismoking activists almost certainly see themselves in the same light as the Victorian innovators and philanthropists and campaigners I’d just been hearing about: they were saving lives too!
But, at the same time the thought occurred, it also struck me that it was very different now than it was in the 19th century. But in what ways?
I suppose the most obvious way that it was different was that the shipwreck deaths were real deaths of actual people with names and addresses and grieving wives and children, while the modern “death tolls” ascribed to smoking are the product of statistical analyses that generate projected “numbers of deaths”. The shipwreck death tolls were real, but the smoking death tolls are imaginary. If the statistical analyses employ different methods, they produce different projected “numbers of deaths”. And there are no actual dead bodies with grieving wives and children beside their graves.
It would be different if Smoking Kills, like it says on more or less every cigarette packet today, because then any time you came across someone lying dead with a cigarette or pipe between their lips, you might deduce that this was what had killed them, as surely as arsenic. But smoking doesn’t kill anybody. What kills them is cancer or heart or lung disease which antismoking zealots claim has been caused by smoking. It’s the disease that kills them, not the smoking.
But there are other differences. In the 19th century, a retired sea captain, George Manby, witnessed the shipwreck and drowning of an entire ship’s passengers and crew just 60 yards from the shore where he stood watching helplessly, listening to their screams and shouts. So he went away and invented the Manby Mortar which fired a cannon ball with a grappling hook and line attached. These came into use in many places, and were used to save the lives of many people who would otherwise have perished.
Or take Sir William Hillary, who himself helped save many sailors by rowing out in boats to wrecks, and who went on to found what is now the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Or Samuel Plimsoll, who campaigned in parliament for overladen ships to be prevented from sailing from British ports. This was because at that time, when old wooden ships were sold to be broken up, they were quite often renamed and given a new coat of paint, and sent back to sea as what sailors called “coffin ships”, which would sink in the slightest breeze. Eventually, despite considerable government and shipowner resistance, popular pressure forced the end of these practices. Plimsoll even sold his country house to pay for his campaign’s debts.
These were all men who voluntarily set out to help shipwrecked sailors, using their own funding and resources, and attracting considerable public support in the process. Some of them, like Sir William Hillary, even placed their own lives at risk.
But today’s antismoking campaigners are almost all highly-paid professionals with government or pharma or foundation funding (as mentioned yesterday). It’s a job, and much of their time is spent trying to win more funding for themselves. None of them would ever dream of actually helping any smoker, never mind placing their lives at risk to save one. And they have precious little public support (not enough to fund them).
And whereas in the 19th century, there was government resistance to popular support for the Manbys and Hillarys and Plimsolls of the time, the modern antismoking and healthist professionals always start out with government support in the face of popular indifference. There was no popular call for smoking bans in Britain in 2006. The call came from astroturfed antismoking professionals. Manby, Hillary, and Plimsoll fought against government using genuine popular grassroot movements. But the new antismoking and healthist professionals were united with government from the outset in imposing widely unpopular laws on the people.
No, the modern professional ‘public health’ campaigners are not the descendants of Manby, Hillary, Plimsoll, and many others. They bear no relation to them at all.
If anything, the true descendants of those admirable men are the people who now voluntarily campaign, using their own small resources and skills and wits, against the highly socially and economically and politically damaging smoking bans imposed by governments at the behest of a few professional lobbyists.