Here in the UK, we’re less than 2 months away from the tenth anniversary of the UK public smoking ban of 1 July 2007. And so it seems appropriate to begin to consider how successful it has been.
Tobacco Control declared it to be a Great Success from Day One. But they always declare everything they do to be a Great Success, whatever it is. But then those people only ever talk to each other, in closed sessions in the conferences they hold in Moscow or New Delhi. They never ever talk to smokers like me. I used to think that they would want to know what smokers felt about smoking bans, but in fact they don’t. That alone speaks volumes about their attitude to smokers.
About 10 years ago I had a minor operation for an incipient hernia. I wasn’t really sure that I needed one, but the NHS specialist that I visited said it would only get worse if left untended. He explained to me how he proposed to carry out a new form of ‘keyhole’ surgery which would involve making a minimal incision in my abdomen, and using this to introduce a net inside, which would be clipped in place with pins made from some rare metal. So I knew roughly what he was going to do. He told me that I would be in and out of hospital in one day, staying overnight after the operation before going home. And the morning after the operation he came to visit me in my hospital bed, and asked how I was feeling, and whether I was in any discomfort (it was a bit painful). A few hours later I was released from the hospital, and over the next week or so completely recovered.
Also, about 10 years ago, the most senior doctors in the very same NHS carried out a major operation on me, and about 13 million other people like me. They didn’t ask me whether I wanted the operation. They didn’t explain why we needed it (I for one didn’t think I did). And when they carried out their operation, I was expelled from the hospital the moment the operation was over. And I was never asked thereafter how I felt, or whether I was in any pain. Although in fact I was in very great pain, and have remained in great pain ever since. I never recovered from that operation. And I know that a great many other patients never recovered either. But nevertheless they declared the operation to be a great success. And began planning similar new operations.
In a sense, I suppose that they thought that they were carrying out a completely painless minor operation. No incision was made. No anaesthetic needed to be administered. For the operation merely entailed applying an adhesive patch to the surface of walls in public buildings throughout the UK, the effect of which was to drive tobacco smoke (and tobacco smokers) out of them, just as effectively as if they had been mosquitoes or ants. And this was the desired effect. In fact, it was the planned outcome. “Smokers will be exiled to the outdoors,” the director of Action on Smoking and Health, Deborah Arnott, confidently declared. And on the day of its execution, which was carried out simultaneously at the same hour and on the same day everywhere in the UK, the operation was a Great Success: UK smokers were exiled to the outdoors in their millions on 1 July 2007. And all with a few little insect-repellent adhesive patches, which took only a few seconds to apply to the surface of a wall.
The pain came later. And it was the pain that comes from expulsion from society. For on that day, every smoker in the UK was expelled from polite society. Overnight they all became, quite literally, outsiders. And they all had to ‘get used to it’, in their own way, over the next few months and years.
But I never ‘got used to it’. I still wake up every day with the deep, throbbing pain of it. I did so again today. Ten years after the imposition of the UK smoking ban, it’s still as painful as it was that July day ten years ago. The pain usually wears off by late morning, and I can think about other things.
1 July 2007 wasn’t the end of something, but instead the beginning of a process which was to unfold with its own remorseless internal logic thereafter, month by month, year by year. For the smoking ban first shattered, almost instantaneously the circle of acquaintances that I had built up around me in Devon pubs, and with whom I talked, bought drinks, and played games of pool. Exiled to the outdoors, we never met up with each other again, except in passing on a street. And then gradually, over the next few years, the smoking ban shattered my wider circle of long-term friends, some of whom I had known for over 30 years. The reason for this was quite simple: there was no longer anywhere to meet them. Nowhere, that is, that didn’t have the atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room. This process of disintegration was hastened when many of them, of their own volition, also banned smoking in their own homes, thereby assigning to their smoking friends the status of poisonous insects.
Nor is it, as far as I can see, that other smokers ever ‘got used to it’ either. If they had done, UK pub culture would have not have changed at all. After a week or two inside the “smoke-free” pubs, smokers would have got used to not smoking inside them, just like they get used to the disappearance of one brand of beer, and the arrival of another. They would, in short, have stopped smoking. But, where I live now, the smokers have not stopped smoking, and instead meet up to drink and smoke outside, in pub gardens, just like they always did on summer days. And most pubs, having lost their smoking-and-drinking clientele, have transformed themselves into pub-restaurants. And of course many of them – about a quarter – have gone to the wall.
But the process of social disintegration consequent upon the UK smoking ban extends far beyond any circle of acquaintances or friends. It extends to the whole of society in every respect. And now that I am no longer welcome anywhere, I no longer go anywhere. Why should I wish to travel around in a country in which I am no longer welcome, even though I remain a British citizen? Why should I want to ride on trains on which I can’t smoke, or to stay in hotels where I can’t smoke, or visit museums or art galleries where I can’t smoke, or attend concerts or cinemas where I can’t smoke. The answer is that I don’t want to. And so I don’t. I no longer take part in any ‘cultural’ activity whatsoever. Nor do I watch the TV on which smoking has also been rigorously banned. Because I am no longer part of their culture. Their hollow, empty, fraudulent culture is one that I have no wish to belong to either.
And with social disintegration there has come political disintegration. I used (silly me!) to vote Liberal Democrat, because I thought of myself as something of a classical liberal, and also a parliamentary democrat. I stopped voting for them when I learned that 95% of Lib Dem MPs in parliament had voted for the draconian smoking ban. And I swung from being pro-EU to anti-EU almost overnight when I learned that the European parliament had voted for a European smoking ban, complete with show trials for prominent offenders. To this day, I do not see how a political union of some 500 million people can endure and prosper when 150 million of them have been exiled to the outdoors as so many poisonous insects. The Commissioners in the EU Commission may as well have set off a large bomb in the fragile hull of the the ship of the EU, and thereby scuttled “the project” before it had even left harbour on its maiden voyage. The EU, as far as I’m concerned, has no future.
Nor is it that I have grown weaker over these past 10 years. Instead I have grown stronger. I am more determined than ever to carry on smoking. And I have lost every vestige of belief in any of the epidemiological studies of smoking, and the medical organisations that conduct them.
In short, what initially looked like a successful operation is gradually proving to be a catastrophic failure.
Furthermore I have become active in trying to bring smokers together from all over the world, via the internet. For I see them as a huge army-in-waiting – 1.5 billion strong -, waiting for the call to arms. Ten years ago, smokers no more belonged to a political entity than tea-drinkers or snooker-players. But any group in society automatically becomes a political entity when it is singled out for special discriminatory treatment. It takes a lot of heating and hammering for iron to be turned into the steel of a razor-sharp samurai sword. And smokers are currently enduring that hammering. And far from destroying them, it will actually only strengthen them, as it has strengthened me. There’s already a nascent army of them emerging all over the world: I am, as one trivial example, invited to speak to German smokers later on this year, which I will do so via Skype. Such a thing would have been inconceivable 10 years ago. And this kind of thing will happen more and more.
In another ten years, a small global irregular army of smokers will have appeared, and got identified as a growing new political force. And as it grows in strength, it will attract more and more smokers, and maybe quite a few ex-smokers and non-smokers as well. And then twenty years later, it will have become so powerful that it can embark on the complete and systematic destruction of Tobacco Control, and the root-and-branch reformation of the medical profession, and the long-overdue extirpation of every kind of eugenic thinking from the universities. I do not think this is mere wishful thinking: I think that it is the inevitable consequence of a slowly-unfolding logic, that is as inexorable as the Newtonian laws of motion and gravitation. It can’t be stopped.