I think that, in years to come, there will be an entire literature devoted to the Global War on Smoking, and the smoking bans that came with it, much in the same way that there is an entire literature surrounding the Holocaust, or WW1, or Hiroshima. It will be a treasure trove for historians and sociologists and psychologists and physicians and political theorists and philosophers of science. There will be learned books written about it by learned men, drawing learned conclusions.
And that’s because, for me, this war has been the most defining event in my life. It succeeded, far more than the sixties ever did, in making me into a political animal. Because I never used to be ‘political’. In fact, I rather despised anyone who was. But then, I’d never really got badly burned by anything throughout the greater part of my life. It had all proceeded so very smoothly, up until 1 July 2007, which was the day that Britain entered the war.
Ever since that day, I’ve been a sort of soldier in a war that I didn’t want to fight, but into which I had been thrown, against my will. Does anyone ever want to fight wars? But I got called up. I had to present myself in person at the local Smoker Volunteer Brigade headquarters, and be kitted out in the standard Smoke Gray uniform, given some elementary training in hand-to-hand combat with Antis, and then shipped off to the Front.
And there I’ve been ever since, knee deep in mud. It’s been trench warfare for nearly 10 years. The Antis scored a quick, surprise victory at the outset. But since then, as I was describing a couple of days ago, they’ve rather lost momentum. They launch new offensives from time to time, but they seldom gain much ground.
And so here I am, in the front line. And every morning I get up, and put my rifle over the parapet, and fire off another shot at the distant enemy. I have no idea whether I ever hit any of them. For I never actually see any of them face to face.
Why am I fighting? It’s quite simple, really: The Antis want me to stop smoking, and I don’t want to stop smoking. So it’s a battle of wills. “You Will Stop Smoking,” the Antis shout. “No I Won’t,” I yell back. “Yes You Will.” “No I won’t.” “Will.” “Won’t.” “WILL!!” “WON’T!!” And so on.
But that’s what wars are, I suppose. Battles of will. Battles of one will against another.
Will the war ever end? It shows little sign of ever ending. And, very arguably, it’s a war that has been being fought not just for the past 10 years, but for the past 500 years. It’s a war that’s been being fought ever since Columbus brought back a few tobacco plants to Spain from the newly discovered New World of the Americas. So perhaps it really is a never-ending war.
The civilians in this war – the non-combatants – aren’t the Smokers or the Antis, but the non-smoking majority. They continue with their lives as they always have, back home in England. They have been almost completely untouched. In fact, I think they are not even aware, most of them, that there is any sort of global war being fought. Ask any of them what happened on 1 July 2007, and they will look puzzled for a bit, and then say, “Wasn’t that the day that Gordon Brown became Prime Minister? It must be. I can’t think of anything else that happened round then.”
But why should they know that there’s a war going on? For, unlike WW1, there’s no reporting of this war in any of the newspapers. So it can’t be happening, can it?
No, the war will never end. And it will never be reported either. These two facts are bound up with one another. For when something has been going on forever, it ceases to be news. What is newsworthy is never going to be an eternal verity, like the fact that there are mountains in Switzerland, or water in Lake Geneva.
No. The war on smoking is an endless war. It’s been going on forever, with the front line gradually shifting from one place to another. Sometimes the smokers win big victories. And sometimes the Antis win. And right now is a time when the Antis are winning. For they certainly weren’t winning 70 years ago, when about the only places people couldn’t smoke were churches and schools. The early 20th century was a time of big victories for us smokers. It was the time when cigarettes became ubiquitous, and women started smoking. And, precisely because smokers were scoring such big victories, the Antis started fighting back. That’s when they launched their highly-effective Lung Cancer Scare. It was such an effective scare that most people still believe it. In fact, it’s about the only thing that most people believe. Ask them whether they believe in God, and some will say yes, and some will say no, and some will say they don’t know. But ask them whether they think that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, and they’ll all say – more or less without exception – that it most certainly does, and they’ll even offer, as incontrovertible evidence, the fact that their own dad died of lung cancer caused by going into a smoky bar in Brittany one afternoon for a few minutes, simply to ask directions to Le Mans. Even hardened veteran smokers here in the trenches believe it. “Oh yes,” they say, as they puff on their pipes, “Smoking is bad for you. No doubt about it. It’ll kill me one day, I’m quite sure.” And then step up onto the parapet, and fire another shot at their would-be saviours on the other side.
I’m just another soldier fighting in this endless war. It’s perhaps entirely accidental that I’m fighting on this side rather than the other. It could just as easily have been that I got called up by the Smoke-Free Outreach Initiative rather than by the Smoker Volunteer Brigade just round the corner from it, much like it’s an accident that I became a Catholic rather than a Protestant, and English rather than French. What if I’d wandered into that place, and read on its walls:
Quit with Stub Buddies for 28 days and you’ll get a £15 feel-good reward, such as a food hamper, a spa treatment, or an activity voucher?
Could I have resisted such an offer? Probably not. Can you imagine it? A whole food hamper, in a wicker basket from Fortnum and Masons, chock full of chocolate biscuits, iced cakes, gingerbread men, marmalade, jam, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and miniature bottles of beer and whisky! Or else a spa treatment – no doubt to cure me of all the innumerable maladies caused by smoking, including even flat feet – spent floating in a warm tank of carbonated water, wearing goggles! Or, best of all, an activity voucher, that would permit me to Do Something, rather than do nothing! And all for the small outlay of stopping smoking, or pretending to stop smoking, for just 28 days! I could have stopped smoking in January for 28 days, and then stopped smoking in February for 28 days, and so on all the way through the year. And I’d have lived like a king off my Fortnum and Mason food hampers, floating in a bath of warm water, before climbing out and doing all those press-ups and knee-bends and cross-country runs enabled and enjoined by my numerous activity vouchers.
The war will never end. But I still dream of going home one day. I dream of the day when I take off the Smoke Gray uniform, and fold it up for the last time, and head down to the Dog and Duck, wave to old Fred by the fire, have a chat with submariner Ron, order a pint of the very best, sit down with it in my usual corner with a newspaper, and light a cigarette.
But before I can do that, I first have to win the war. And I never will win. So I’ll die one day out here on the Front. And become another forgotten soldier among millions of other forgotten soldiers, in a war that never ends.