These days I see myself as being a footsoldier in a war. I used not to think I was a soldier, because I didn’t think I was in a war. But eventually, after a while, I slowly learned that there was a war in progress, and that I was a soldier in that war.
The war I found out that I was fighting in has been going on for 400 years at least, and maybe 500 years, or even more. It’s a never-ending war.
As far as I know, the war started when newly-discovered tobacco began to be exported from America to Europe, along with all sorts of other newly-discovered commodities in the New World of the Americas. And the war was between those who liked to smoke tobacco, and those who hated it: the war was between smokers and antismokers. Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the earliest smokers, and King James I one of the earliest antismokers. The antismokers make periodic attempts to stamp out smoking, but the smokers usually recover any ground they might lose.
I was born in a time, just after WW2, when more or less everyone smoked. It was normal. People smoked at home, and they smoked in pubs and cafes and restaurants and theatres and cinemas. My father smoked. My mother occasionally smoked. My grandfather smoked. About the only place people didn’t smoke was in church. And children weren’t allowed to smoke.
That’s to say that I grew up in a time when smoking was universal, and when smokers seemed to have won the war. For smokers had been among the accidental victors of WW1 and WW2. Churchill and Roosevelt and Stalin were all smokers, and Hitler was an antismoker. Smoking prevalence rises in wartime because wars are highly stressful, and smoking relieves stress. So smoking prevalence soared during WW1, and again during WW2. And after the war, prevalence began to fall, if only because the post-war era was less stressful than the war years: people didn’t need to smoke.
But if victorious smokers thought that they had won the war against antismokers, it proved a hollow victory. For the few remaining antismokers rallied and launched a new attack on smoking. And this time, instead of launching a new moral and religious war on smoking, they launched a medical and scientific war on it. Their message was simple: Smoking kills. However much smokers might enjoy smoking, their habit was killing them. The antismokers produced numerous studies filled with numbers – statistics – proving it. And the smokers had no defence against this mechanised army of numbers that the antismokers threw at them. And one by one, they slowly laid down their cigarettes, and surrendered.
So if in 1945 it looked like the smokers had won the war against the antismokers, 70 years later it looks like the antismokers have won the war against smokers. If in 1945 85% of adult British males were smokers, by 2015 only about 15% of them were. The numbers had been reversed. And sweeping smoking bans had been introduced all around the world. And now I’m fighting on the side of the smokers, in my small way.
So will the year 2025 or something see the final victory of the antismokers in their 500 year long war on smoking? Almost certainly not. Certainly the world’s smokers have been left reeling by the reverses they have suffered. But no more so than the antismokers were left reeling, 70+ years ago, by the wartime supremacy of smoking.
In the first place, there are still considerable numbers of smokers, and where they persist, they are usually confirmed, determined smokers. And a grassroot smokers’ resistance movement has emerged in almost exactly the same way that an antismokers’ resistance movement emerged during the war years. If smokers were oppressing antismokers (with their smoke) back then, it is now antismokers who oppress smokers (with laws and restrictions and taxes), and oppression always breeds resistance. This grassroot resistance movement is as powerless and invisible as the antismoking resistance movement once was. But that will change. It is already changing.
In the second place, the spell of the antismokers’ numbers – their statistical arguments – is beginning to lose its strength. And this is happening because the same statistical arguments are now being used to combat alcohol, obesity, sugar, and any number of other things. It’s not just that smoking kills, but that alcohol kills, and sugar kills, and obesity kills. The antismokers’ coin is becoming debased. It has less and less value. Fewer and fewer people believe the innumerable latest health scares.
In the third place, the antismokers are set to lose the moral war on smoking. For regardless of all medical and statistical arguments against smoking, the war on smoking has always been primarily a moral war. Smoking, for the antismokers, has always been a naughty, impure, dirty, and unnatural pastime, and they have always held the moral high ground against the smokers. The war on smoking has been the war of cleanliness against uncleanliness, the clean against the unclean. But when it emerges – as it will emerge – just how much damage their war on smoking has done, and to so many people, sometimes to the point of their death, the antismokers will find that they have lost their moral high ground. They’ll lose it much like Nazism lost the moral high ground once Nazi death camps and concentration camps were discovered, or Soviet Communism lost the moral high ground after the Soviet gulag archipelago came to light.
In the fourth place, the invention of completely new ways of smoking – e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn cigarettes, etc – has meant that the antismokers are facing a whole new series of enemies. Tobacco has always proved remarkably adept in re-inventing the way it is consumed. Pipes, cigars, cigarettes, snuff, chew, water-pipes, and others, are just a few of the many ways that tobacco is enjoyed. And now a whole new army of smoking technologies has begun to make an appearance, in exactly the same way (and for exactly the same reasons) that new weapons appear in every war.
Fifthly, the war on smoking, and the resistance to it, has spilled out into the wider world. For example, I personally voted for Brexit largely in response to the EU smoking ban. And I suspect that a great many US smokers voted against Hillary Clinton in the recent election because they knew she was a virulent antismoker. And since the war on smoking is a global war, the rising tide of anti-globalism is almost certainly being lifted in some part by globally oppressed smokers.
In short, the 500 year long war is set to continue. And the current antismoking high tide is set to ebb away. If nothing else, new wars will serve to enlist new recruits into the ranks of smokers. In 50 years time, just as much tobacco will be consumed as it is today, but it will be consumed in new ways. The same will be true of alcohol, sugar, and everything else.
But it’s a never-ending war. And it’s one of a whole set of similar never-ending wars. They are simply wars in which there have been temporary lulls, or truces, or short-lived victories. For example, after 100 years of inactivity, the 1,300 year long war between Christianity and Islam has begun to re-erupt. Islam has been re-inventing itself as assiduously as smoking has been re-inventing itself. And Christianity (which has also always been re-inventing itself) will re-invent itself as well.
The Cold War is another war that looked like it was over, but which has now been re-started. Look everywhere around the world, and there are simmering wars all over it, waiting to be brought back to boiling point.
And if wars can be fought over things as trivial as tobacco, they can be fought over anything at all. There is at present, one might say, only a temporary lull in the war between tea-drinkers and coffee-drinkers. Or between celery-eaters and celerophobes. But wherever there is the slightest difference between people, on any matter whatsoever, however unimportant, therein lies the seed of some future 1000 year long war.