Tobacco Control has never been a popular – or populist – project. There have never been mass marches or demonstrations in favour of it. In the months preceding the 2007 UK smoking, my own personal polling of Devon pub-goers revealed very little support: I only encountered one person who was unequivocally in favour of it. The rest were more or less resigned to a ban that they could do little or nothing about. There was, in short, very little support for the impending ban. But if there wasn’t very much support, there wasn’t much resistance either.
Tobacco Control is instead an elitist project. It’s the project of senior doctors in the medical profession, and also senior figures in government and industry. It requires powerful top-down political control for it to be pushed through, against the grain of popular opinion. And it also needs a compliant mass media which will not report any dissent or resistance.
And all the prerequisites were in place in the UK in 2006, and even more so in the EU. In the UK, the three main political parties – Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem – had all become more or less indistinguishable from each other, and constituted a political mon0-culture or one-party state – in which all concerned were in agreement about smoking, global warming, and more or less any other progressive (i.e. elitist) concern. And so in early 2006 the greater bulk of MPs in Parliament – 90% of Labour MPs, 95% of Lib Dems MPs, and 30% of Conservative MPs – voted for a UK smoking ban. All concerned believed it was the Right Thing To Do, and was a shining example of Progress of the best sort.
Interestingly, the same happened just yesterday in the Czech Republic.
The Czech lower house of parliament on Friday approved a ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and pubs, overcoming years of wrangling and bringing the country in line with most others in the European Union.
“This brings the Czech Republic (in line with) civilized countries that care for the health of their citizens,” Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said.
Here is a political elite which has just voted to line up with other political elites across Europe, and – rather late in the day – catch the tide of progressivist smoking bans.
The ban enjoys support from three in four Czechs, polls show, but is sensitive all the same as Czechs are fervent pub-goers and beer drinkers are often smokers.
Such support in the polls was probably only achieved, as it was in the UK, by asking Czechs whether they preferred either a complete ban or no ban at all. If Czechs had been asked whether whether they wanted a partial ban, with allowance made for smokers, three in four of them would have opted for some allowance to be made for smokers, as they did in the UK.
As it is, the Czech parliamentarians have now just created ex nihilo a hopping mad 25% minority of smokers who are going to hate not only the smoking ban (which comes into effect on May 31, 2017) but also the parliamentarians who imposed it on them. These angry smokers will form a large part of the populist revolt which will sweep the Czech Republic in future years.
For just such populist revolts have already begun to sweep the world. First Brexit in June 2016, and then the election of Trump in November 2016, and most recently the loss of the Italian constitutional referendum in December 2016.
These populist revolts are an inevitable consequence of top-down control by unaccountable and out-of-touch elites pursuing their own progressivist agendas. After a while, the burden of progressivist measures becomes intolerable, and the people revolt.
Part of the revolt against the elites is also a revolt against the elite mainstream media, who invariably support progressive measures by the political elites, and become in effect a propaganda wing of the one-party state. This revolt sees people stopping reading or watching the MSM, and seeking out new alternative media outlets, usually online, where dissenting opinions can find expression. In the USA, this has seen the rise of ratings of online news organisations like Breitbart and Infowars, while the ratings of the MSM continue to dwindle.
The decline of the one-party state and its propagandist MSM wing is likely to be very bad news for Tobacco Control, which really only thrives in a top-down authoritarian political environment from which all dissent is airbrushed out. In that environment the Tobacco Controllers need only devote their attention to winning the support and backing of the reigning political elites. They need not try to persuade ordinary people, but instead their political elite masters. And in this they are very successful.
But they are not likely to continue to be successful in a populist era in which political elites are being overthrown, top-down control is evaporating, and there ceases to be a compliant MSM which will uncritically broadcast any antismoking message they wish.
Can Tobacco Control survive in a populist environment? The answer would seem to be: almost certainly not. Tobacco Control has never been popular, and never will be. It is always an essentially an elite project that runs counter to popular will. It aims to impose its doctrines upon the bulk of a largely unwilling population. It always uses the force of law, rather than the power of persuasion or reason. Their very name – Tobacco Control – gives the game away.
Tobacco Control – and prohibitionism in general – probably only ever prospers in relatively brief periods when the political elites and their media apologists are able to exert effective top-down control. When, inevitably, this exercise of top-down control triggers popular revolt, prohibitionism becomes impracticable, because there ceases to be the necessary uniformity of political will and media support. Once the political monoculture breaks up, rival, dissenting opinions begin to proliferate. And in this pluralistic environment Tobacco Control becomes merely one voice among many. And one very small voice, at that.
And indeed, in the emerging pluralistic new media environment, Tobacco Control doesn’t seem to be very well represented. Facebook’s Tobacco Control Networks, for example, has only 63 members, and only a handful of posts in 2016, whereas its more active rival Tobacco Control Tactics has 274 members.