There seem to be times in life when you get picked up and spun around and left completely different from what you were before. These times will be different for everybody, but for many people there will be events that are shared with a great many other people. I didn’t live through either, but I imagine that WW1 and WW2 were a couple of those shared events.
I count myself lucky that I never got caught up in any war, and the principal event in my life was almost entirely benign. It was called the Sixties or 60s. And it was really a cultural event that saw the coming of age of my boomer generation, in a flowering of new ideas, new music, new clothes. It was a time in which people got picked up and spun around and left completely different to how they’d been before. For much of my life I’ve felt that I was living a post-60s life. I shared a lot of the attitudes and outlooks of people back then. But I came to regard the 60s as a time of madness, and so much of my life has been lived in reaction to it: Idle Theory (a child of the 70s) grew out of my own personal and rational reaction to the dopey, dreamy 60s.
But these days it all seems like past history. I’m really rather astonished that the Rolling Stones are still touring, and still pulling in crowds, over 50 years later. The same goes for Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. All these people are well over 70!
For me it all became past history on 1 July 2007. That day, for me, was when the post-60s era came to an end. And it was of course the day when the UK smoking ban came into force. In the UK that day marked the dawn of a new age of intolerance and bullying. And once again I got picked up and spun around and left completely different to what I was before. And these days I think that the appearance of smoking bans almost everywhere in the world, over a comparatively short period of time (a decade or so), was a cultural event as significant as the 1960s. All over the world, smokers were being exiled to the outdoors. It’s a quite extraordinary thing to have happened.
I suppose that the 60s were something that actually only affected a minority of people. It was a cultural revolution that didn’t affect anyone aged over about 25 at the time.
And the smoking bans are a cultural revolution that have actually only affected a minority of people: the smokers who make up less than 25% of the adult population in the western world. Most people simply haven’t noticed them. For most people in Britain, 1 July 2007 was just a day like any other.
But for me it inaugurated a revolution. Over the next few years, as a direct consequence of it, I lost all the friends that I’d known before it, some of them for 40 years or more. And I switched from being a slightly left wing liberal Lib Dem voter to becoming a UKIP and Conservative voter. And I switched from being pro-European to anti-European. I became far more politically aware and active than before. And I began to identify as being something that I never particularly identified with before: a smoker. I’m a bit surprised that I still dress the way I used to, and haven’t gone back to going to church.
If I’d been a bit more savvy and insightful, I should have seen it all coming. For the antismoking zealots were already in power by the 1960s, and the demonisation of tobacco was already well under way, and one after the other my friends were stopping smoking, and proudly telling everyone about it. Smokers like me were gradually becoming socially marginalised. 1 July 2007 was just the day when our eviction was formalised. But it still came as a tremendous shock.
And if there’s one strong similarity between now and the 1960s, it’s that both of them featured wars on plant leaves that people liked smoking. Back in the 1960s the innocuous disapproved plant was cannabis, and now it’s tobacco. Back in the 60s we hippies were fighting a war of resistance to cannabis prohibition. Now I’m fighting a war of resistance to tobacco prohibition. And it’s essentially the exact same war, being fought in the exact same way. Tobacco is now as thoroughly demonised as cannabis ever was. It’s one of the symmetries of the time that, just when tobacco is being made illegal, cannabis is being legalised in many places.
The war on cannabis was pretty much lost from the outset: by the mid-1960s, it was the drug of choice for millions of people all over the world, and there really wasn’t much any government could do about it. That experience ought to make a few people realise that the war on tobacco is an equally lost war. In fact it’s arguably a far more futile war than the war on cannabis. For back in the 1960s cannabis was a new drug to most people. But 50 years on, the war on tobacco is a war on a long-established drug. In the 60s they were trying to prevent a new drug taking hold, but now they’re trying to release the grip of a very old drug. If they couldn’t do an easier thing back in the 1960s, what hope have they of achieving something much harder today? They haven’t a hope in hell.
In fact, I think that the drug warriors are going to face an enormous backlash. It will be far more powerful than they can imagine. For it’s not just that Tobacco Control is going to be destroyed, but quite possibly much of the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry as well. If you’re an antismoking doctor, you can look forward to being struck off the medical register, and prevented from practising medicine. You might also find that illustrious medical associations of which you are a member – BMA, RCP, WHO – have been closed down. And you might even find yourself needing to flee to Argentina (or the Kerguelen Islands), else face Nuremberg-style courts.
The war on drugs was always a lost war, from the very outset. The war on alcohol during Prohibition was also a lost war. And the current global war on tobacco is an equally lost war.