I’m a regular watcher of The Great War, which is a series of short – usually 10 minute – videos describing WW1 week by week as it happened exactly 100 years ago. It only has a couple more months to run, given that the war ended in November 1918.
WW1 only lasted 4 years, but to many at the time, and also to me whenever I have watched anything about it, it seemed interminable. And furthermore, many people regard it as just the first half in a two-part war that lasted from 1914 to 1945, with a prolonged half-time uneasy peace between 1918 and 1939.
And in this two-part war, the advantage shifted from one side to the other, and back again. It was almost a toss-up who would end up winning.
The War on Smoking is another great war. And it’s been going on a very long time. In fact, the war on smoking has been raging, off and on, for the past 500 years, ever since Columbus brought back tobacco from the New World. And, as in WW1+2, the advantage has shifted from one side to the other, and back again. It remains far from clear who is going to win.
And in fact, it seems quite reasonable to suppose that, if it has been already fought for 500 years, it is quite likely to last for another 500 years.
The Great War also played a major part in the War on Smoking. For the period 1914-18 was a time when millions of soldiers took up smoking cigarettes, which came in handy cartons, just like bullets. The cigarette is a military innovation, much like the tank or the machine gun. This may also be the origin of its association with death. For no doubt a great many soldiers died lighting cigarettes, their position betrayed by the flaring match they held up to the tip for a second or two – enough time for a sniper to take aim.
There is no leisure in war. There is no time to savour a slow cigar, or ritually fill the bowl of a pipe. The cigarette provided a quick smoke. It stripped the art of smoking down to its minimum. It brought mechanised, production line smoking to a mechanised, production line war.
Millions of smokers returned home at the end of WW1 to continue smoking during the uneasy half-time peace between the wars. And women took up smoking cigarettes during this time. And smoking seems to have become almost universal during WW2. The London Hospitals study of 1950 by Doll and Hill had about 96% of all male patients as smokers. And the British Doctors study which began in 1954 had about 87% of doctors as smokers.
So the period 1914-1945 was one of big victories for tobacco and smoking. Tobacco consumption sky-rocketed. And it remained high after the war ended.
But, as ever in these long wars, the antismokers rallied in response to this defeat. And since the end of WW2 they’ve been gradually winning back the ground that they lost between 1914 and 1945. If back then the antismokers had their backs to the wall, it’s now the turn of the smokers to find themselves with their backs to the wall. In fact, the antismokers think that they have pretty much won the war on smoking: they see themselves as in a winning “endgame.”
But I think they’re premature in declaring victory. For this is a very, very long war. And there is still an army of many hundreds of millions of smokers in the world, many of them (like me) hardened veteran smokers. I certainly think of myself as just such a veteran. We all deserve medals. And I think that one day we will be given medals (perhaps we should design a few?). I’ll certainly get the British Smokers Cross (1 July 2007). Every smoker in Britain will get that gong.
One reason for thinking that the war is going to carry on a lot longer is that, some 100 years after the military innovation of the cigarette, there is now a new military innovation: the e-cigarette. I personally don’t like them much, but mine is the same dislike that cigar and pipe smokers had for new-fangled cigarettes when they first appeared. But I think they have a great future. They’re a further minimization of the art of smoking. And I suspect that they will evolve and proliferate in countless numbers of ways. They are currently larger and heavier than cigarettes, but I expect that as the new technology is refined we’ll be seeing one-puff micro-cigarettes the size of toothpicks, and almost indistinguishable from them, and producing almost invisible smoke. And when those arrive, smoking bans won’t stop them becoming as ubiquitous as cigarettes once were, because no-one will notice them. But that’s just my guess.
Rather like the WW1 tanks that threw soldiers into confusion when they first appeared, e-cigarettes have set the antismokers on their back foot. They’re facing an entirely new and unexpected enemy. They are divided among themselves as to what to do about it.
But I also think that the next few years will start to see the army of veteran smokers in the world becoming much more united and disciplined. For the new technology of the internet is allowing smokers all over the world to meet up in places like the Smoky Drinky Bar, in ways that they never possibly could before. This is a new sort of society. Once again its development will be an evolutionary process. And one never knows where such evolutionary processes will lead, as I was writing only yesterday: they can’t be planned.
The War on Smoking has become the war of a paid, organised, lumbering, centralised, antismoking bureaucracy against a volunteer, dispersed, ubiquitous, guerrilla army of smokers. And it’s one in which Tobacco Control is losing the megaphone mainstream media on which they have relied for the past century to promulgate their doctrines. And it’s also one in which they are losing the moral high ground, as they commit greater and greater atrocities against smokers, and tell bigger and bigger lies. And it’s one in which they have unnecessarily made themselves far too many enemies.
It’s an asymmetric war. And it’s going to go on being fought for a very long time.