Can Tobacco Control Survive the Rise of Populism?

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.




About Frank Davis

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16 Responses to Can Tobacco Control Survive the Rise of Populism?

  1. Furtive Ferret says:

    “This brings the Czech Republic (in line with) civilized countries that care for the health of their citizens,” Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said.”

    Thing is I thought exactly the opposite in that having worked in Prague the Czechs were more civilised because they were still liberal (in the classical sense) enough to permit smoking.

    As far as I could tell they already had a good system in place where it was clearly indicated at the entrances whether smoking was permitted/segregated/not permitted.

    Depending on when they start enforcing the ban it will be interesting to see whether pub going is affected or not.

    • Frank Davis says:

      How WILL Harry cope? Buckingham Palace rolls out no-smoking policy at royal residences including at his Kensington Palace home
      Buckingham Palace did, until recently, permit smoking in designated areas
      Officials in the Master of the Household’s department put a stop to smoking
      E-cigarettes will be permitted in the designated areas until May 21 next year
      Queen’s father King George VI was a heavy smoker and suffering from lung cancer when he died

      Looks like Prince Harry is no better off than a NYC HUD resident.

  2. Swiss parliament rejects tobacco advertising ban

    20 Minutes. According to a study published by the Swiss federal office of public health last December1, two thirds of the Swiss public were in favour of banning tobacco advertising, everywhere exce

    • smokingscot says:

      I see in that article:

      “Corine Kibora, spokesperson for Addiction Suisse described parliament’s decision as “disappointing” and “proof that the arguments of lobbyists and the economy triumphed over the public’s health”, while adding that as the trend towards favouring individual choice over collective responsibility takes over we seem to have forgotten the central point: business and advertisers are driven to make sales.”

      So one set of lobbyists beat Addiction Suisse – themselves a lobby group. And “the economy” at long last became an issue with one parliament.

      However that business of

      “… the trend towards favouring individual choice over collective responsibility takes over”

      says it all. Not only do we need far more individual choice, we need far less “collective” in everything (notably bailing out failed banks and lining the pockets of parasites). And yes business and advertisers are there to make sales. This time in one very small sphere the Swiss won.

      As they did by refuting claims of widespread support to ban outsiders from going to Dignitas. 78% said it’s okay for foreigners. 85% said it’s dandy for Swiss people.

      So yet another FU moment in Switzerland.

      • Joe L. says:

        Not only do we need far more individual choice, we need far less “collective” in everything (notably bailing out failed banks and lining the pockets of parasites).

        Couldn’t have said it better!

  3. Ana says:

    Talking about ‘civilized’ countries – look at the price of tobacco in Australia or NZ, no doubt at that extortionate level for smokers own good. That’s not nanny state anymore, full blown Nazi. I’m so hopeful that Trump won in US, remember that Obama’s first order was to raise the tax on rolling tobacco some 2000%!! Clinton would’ve been a nightmare.

    • waltc says:

      When scrounging for examples of what she’d accomplished in her thirty yrs in politics, Madam Clinton would lead her (amazingly paltry) list with “providing health insurance for children” which was accomplished by imposing that huge federal tax on all forms of tobacco.

      As for the main topic, so much of the public (tho I’d like to know the actual percentage) , seems to have already been so thoroughly propagandized about the lethality of secondhand smoke and how everyone decent detests the smell (notice how they all use the same canned and carefully spoon-fed cliches about their hair and their clothes) and what louts smokers are that I wonder if the damage isn’t already done, if this crap hasn’t cemented into “common knowledge ” and if hating smokers hasn’t made them feel bonded with, and able to feel that they too are, elite.

  4. nisakiman says:

    Frank, both your links go to Tobacco Control Networks.

    As FF says above, it will be interesting to keep an eye on how the Czech hospitality industry copes with this.

    It rather depends on how much the law is adhered to. Because here in Greece, we have pretty draconian smoking restrictions in theory. But in reality, those restrictions are just ignored. I’m now living in the third largest city in Greece, and I haven’t yet been to a bar or restaurant that doesn’t provide ashtrays. But they do comply with the signage, so all those bars and restaurants have the mandatory ‘NO SMOKING’ signs on the windows.

    If the Czechs follow the Greek approach to smoking bans, then the hospitality industry will escape relatively unscathed. However, if the bans are actually enforced, I think we’ll see a steep decline in the numbers of bars and clubs, just as happened in UK.

    Watch this space…

  5. jaxthefirst says:

    Interesting (and heartening!) article. I wonder whether the end of prohibition in the USA came after a period of elitist, top-down control. The reason always given in the textbooks was that prohibition was repealed because of the Great Depression, although I’ve never quite been able to understand why that event would have caused politicians to decide that re-legalising the sale of alcohol would be just the boost the economy needed to get going again. Hadn’t they (rather like before the smoking ban here), spent lots of time and energy telling people before imposing prohibition on everyone, that drinking was killing businesses because everyone was lolling around drunkenly all the time, or something along those lines? I’m assuming that that was their major justification, rather than just the “immoral” angle. It really doesn’t make much sense, then, to repeal a “business saving” piece of legislation right at the point when business was at its lowest ebb.

    I think a rise in populism is a more likely reason, but I don’t know enough about US political history to know if the repeal of prohibition was preceded by any major period of top-down controlling government.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I don’t know enough about US political history to know if the repeal of prohibition was preceded by any major period of top-down controlling government.

      I don’t know enough either. But prohibition clearly was an exercise in top-down control. The prohibitionists even amended the US constitution: the 18th amendment. I don’t know of any similar recent amendment of the US constitution. My understanding is that it was repealed because it was gradually realised that prohibition created more problems than it solved. e.g. smuggling gangs like Al Capone’s, and large numbers of people killed by illegal alcohol. And alcohol clearly was seen as a tremendous problem back then, much like tobacco is now. And needed to be “de-normalised” back then just like tobacco is now.

      The controlling impulse never goes away. A great crusade must be launched, and pursued ruthlessly, to save people from themselves. 100 years ago it was directed against alcohol. Now it’s being directed against tobacco.

      I grew up in the fifties in an era of terror about alcohol. It was perhaps imported from the USA. My mother regaled me with stories about how half our forebears had been undone by the bottle. She used to beg me (I was aged about 5 years old) to resist the awful temptation, even though I was not in the least bit tempted at that time. It took my pub-going father some years to allay her fears about alcohol. And what we’re seeing today is an upsurge in the same irrational terror, only this time not over alcohol, but tobacco.

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