by Mat Coward
People who give up smoking are more likely to go to heaven - and that’s official. Mark Twain said “If I cannot smoke in heaven, then I shall not go,” but the Vatican includes regular praying, making the sign of the cross, and stopping smoking, in its Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, a list of deeds which count towards the remission of sins. (The Freethinker, October 1999.)
In 1657, the Swiss added abstention from smoking to the Ten Commandments.
In the USA, Prohibition began with smoking (Washington DC banned the sale of tobacco entirely in 1893; the law was declared unconstitutional, was rewritten, and was eventually repealed as unenforceable in 1911). The religious movement which led Prohibition intended to target drinking, smoking and all other immoral activities - but the disaster of the alcohol ban sank the entire project for several decades. When alcohol was made illegal in 1919, preacher Billy Sunday famously declared: “Prohibition is won - now for tobacco!”
In the USA today, some televangelists perform exorcisms to cure people of homosexuality, sexual promiscuity and smoking. They call it “binding the demons.” Smoking is caused, they believe, by actual, literal demons, evil spirits, which possess sinners, and can only be removed, or bound, by religious ceremonies. (Fortean Times, Nov 06).
Antismoking is a religion. It is driven by faith, not science.
Like all other religions, the antismoking faith is based on the principle that once you choose to believe one impossible thing then all other apparent absurdities become acceptable. Christians can accept the virgin birth, transubstantiation, life after death and so on, as they have first chosen to believe in the existence of an omnipotent god. Human virgin birth is impossible in a universe based on material laws, but not in one in which the basic principle is the existence of an omnipotent god.
That's why religions can never be susceptible to scientific analysis or critique, because properly conducted science doesn't start by deciding to believe something. There is no act of faith involved; science starts with a question and through studying data attempts to arrive, if not at the whole truth, then at least at something reasonable: a theory.
The basic principle - the “god” - that antismokers start with is the belief that smoking is responsible for all the evil in the world. From this, all else flows.
Before we go any further let’s deal with a common misunderstanding: that they crusade against smoking out of a concern for your health.
If they really want to protect us from illness, why aren’t they as worried about other dangers as they are about smoking?
“Medical researchers warned yesterday that high-pressure work deadlines can cause a six-fold increase in the risk of a heart attack in the following 24 hours.” (Morning Star, 15 Dec 04.)
So, if they really wanted to protect us from illness, wouldn’t they be trying to reduce working hours, to encourage the growth of trade unions and industrial democracy to protect workers from excessive “high pressure,” and financing earlier retirement (rather than, as is currently happening, forcing later retirement)? Just for the record, the average British employee in 2006 was working 80,224 hours in their working life, as opposed to 69,000 in 1981. (www.redflag.org.uk/frontline/vol22/02marx.html).
“Women who breathe air polluted with smoke and exhaust fumes are up to four times more likely to have children who develop cancer,” according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (Independent, 17 Jan 05). Women “who live near factories, power stations or major road junctions are at greatest risk,” and “the evidence from these set of data is that these exposures account for half or more of cancers in childhood.” Further: “Most childhood cancers start in the womb and are caused by pollution.” (Daily Mirror, 17 Jan 05.)
So, if they really wanted to protect us from illness, wouldn’t they be spending vast amounts of our money on promoting public transport and reducing harmful industrial emissions?
“The average person is being slowly poisoned by more than three hundred man-made chemicals.” (The Mirror, 14 Feb 01). A European Commission study warns that the “substances in use before the introduction of safety legislation in 1981 are exempt from the regulations, and have therefore never been tested for their effects on humans. “We absorb the potentially-lethal cocktail from everyday objects such as plastic toys and toilet bleach. Long-term health risks include cancer, birth defects, allergies, asthma and hormonal problems.”
Now, I’m not saying I believe in any of these any more or less than I believe in the smoking scares; for every expert, as they say, there is an equal and opposite expert. I am simply asking - from those who are believers in antismoking - for consistency, and for a more rational set of priorities.
“Air pollution cuts nearly seven months off our life expectancy,” according to the World Health Organisation. Pollution “contributes to 33,000 premature deaths each year,” and “costs the UK between £4.8 billion and £14.3 billion a year.” The main cause is “tiny particulates causing heart failure. They are emitted by traffic,” as well as by industry and domestic heating. “Nearly 10 times as many people die each year from breathing contaminated air than from road accidents.” (Daily Mirror, 19 Apr 05).
“People who have demanding jobs but have little control over their working environment may suffer a decline in health that is the equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes a day,” according to research at the Harvard Public School of Health in Boston, published in the British Medical Journal. Workers in such jobs “are at the same risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and depression as smokers and those who lead a sedentary lifestyle.” The report found “there is good and bad stress. A chief executive may have just as much stress as his secretary but the secretary will suffer more as he or she will have less control over their job,” and that “workers in ‘high strain jobs’ had the worst health while those in ‘low strain jobs’ were the healthiest.” (Independent, 26 May 2000).
So why aren’t there health warnings printed on wage slips? No - I’m serious: why aren't there? If you want to continue believing that the government puts health warnings on fag packets in order to save our health, then you have got to ask yourself that question. And you've got to have a bloody good answer to it, too. Does anyone honestly believe that moderate smoking is worse for you than working every day in a stressful job? Honestly?
Sir Richard Doll - the epidemiologist who is credited with being the first to truly establish a link between smoking and lung cancer - was paid $1,500 a day by Monsanto, manufacturers of Agent Orange, the defoliant used illegally as a weapon of mass murder by the USA during the Vietnam War. (Guardian, 8 Dec 06; Morning Star, 9 Dec 06). While he was on the payroll as a “consultant,” during the 1980s, Sir Richard assured a royal commission investigating the potential cancer-causing properties of Agent Orange that there was no evidence to suggest a link. Clearly, coming from so eminent a cancer expert, this testimony must have carried a great deal of weight. Doll was also paid fees by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, Dow Chemicals and ICI, for undertaking work which established that vinyl chloride (used in plastics) did not cause various cancers (the World Health Organisation disagrees with his view).
Doll’s financial relationship with these companies was only revealed after his death. Some scientists argue that the almost exclusive emphasis on the dangers of smoking has disguised the role of pollution and other factors in causing various cancers; Sir Richard Doll’s secret life at least suggests that such smokescreens are not accidental. Doll’s job was to say that weapons of mass destruction don’t cause cancer; pollution caused by capitalism doesn’t cause cancer; cancer is only caused by the sin of pleasure - cancer is self-inflicted. Ah! We are nearing the heart of it all.
A spokesman for Cancer Research UK explained away the Doll revelations: times had changed, he said, and the accusations must be put into context. Indeed they must.
An extraordinarily sharp rise in the incidence of type 2 diabetes (usually blamed on obesity) may be linked to exposure to increasing levels of persistent organochlorine pollutants (POPs), which are most likely to come from eating fish, according to a study published in Environmental Health. (Daily Telegraph, 29 Nov 05.)
“Millions of children” worldwide may be suffering a “silent pandemic” of brain damage - leading to autism, ADD, mental retardation, reduced IQ, heightened aggression and cerebral palsy - because of industrial pollution, according to a major study based at the University of Southern Denmark (Daily Telegraph, 8 Nov 06). This is because, although about 200 commonly used chemicals are known to be “toxic to the human brain,” only a handful are regulated in any way.
About 1,600 people a year die in Hong Kong of heart attacks, strokes, pneumonia and other lung diseases, because of air pollution, according to research at the University of Hong Kong (Independent, 9 Jun 06).
The Medical Research Council in Britain examined the nutritional content of fruit and vegetables in 1940 and again in 1991; it found that nutrient levels had dropped dramatically. Some vegetables had lost 75% of elements such as magnesium; fruits as much as 66%. In 1991 you would have to eat ten tomatoes, for instance, to obtain as much copper as from a single 1940 tomato. The cause was thought to be intensive farming - too much inorganic nitrogen, potassium and phosphate in the soil, and too much watering. (Sunday Telegraph, 18 Feb 07).
The environmentalist charity, WWF, tested 27 foodstuffs from various European countries in 2006 and found “potentially harmful synthetic chemicals” in every single one, including flame retardants in cheese, illegal pesticides in fish and phthalates in olive oil and meat. They also tested the blood of 352 people, and again found “potentially harmful synthetic chemicals” in every single one. These chemicals have been linked to genital deformities and cancers. The charity blamed “decades of inadequate legislation”. (www.wwf.org.uk/news/n_0000002998.asp).
I have here a tobacco packet, which carries one of the health warnings which it is, by law, required to carry. This one says: “Smoke contains benzene, nitrosamines, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide.”
Well, first of all - so what? What are these substances? I know nothing about any of them - they are just scary words, used without context to frighten childlike minds: their direct predecessors were Beelzebub, Behemoth and Lucifer. Secondly: thanks for telling me. Now could you please tell me where else in my daily life I am exposed to these chemicals - and others? Are they in the pollution given out by factories and traffic jams, for instance? If I should be scared of them in cigarettes, should I not be scared of them in pesticides? If not, why not? And are these the only chemicals I need to be scared of?
And finally, I notice you say “smoke,” not “tobacco smoke.” Does that mean that I am exposed to these Beelzebubs whenever I inhale smoke - bonfires, burning tyres, foot-and-mouth funeral pyres?
(And remember, only smoking counts: you can have adverts linking smoking with particular diseases, and listing the chemicals found in cigarettes; but in 1996, two Vegetarian Society ads, which linked meat-eating with particular diseases, and listed the chemicals found in meat products, were banned by the regulatory authority. [Daily Telegraph, 10 Oct 96].)
You can die - some people have died - from sitting too long at your desk. Deep vein thrombosis became very well-known a few years ago, as something which killed a few people when they had sat too long on an aeroplane. The more common version - that which fells the screen-bound, and which, doctors fear, is becoming more common still, because of the ever-increasing hours worked by the new white-collar proletariat - has received very little publicity. This is an excellent example of the way in which “self-imposed” harm - that which results from the pursuit of happiness, such as flying away on holiday - is always to be stressed, while system-imposed harm (from overwork, in this case) is to be downplayed, denied, or ignored.
Early in the last century, Charles Fort came up with the concept of “damned data” (putting that phrase and his name into a search engine will lead to a rewarding read), by which he meant data which contradict the establishment view on any given thing, and which are therefore cast into the outer darkness: suppressed, ridiculed, tweaked or tortured into line, ignored ... “damned,” in other words, in the original, religious sense of the word. It may be - I can’t prove it - that no single subject in the history of science has so relied on the damnation of data as has antismoking.
Smoking certainly can kill you. The British fire-fighters’ trade union estimates that more than 4,000 accidental house fires are started by cigarettes every year, killing more than 100 people (Morning Star, 15 May 06). This could be cut dramatically, says the union, if “firesafe” cigarettes - fags that go out when you don’t smoke them - were universally introduced; several firesafe brands are already on sale in China and the USA. If saving lives was really important, the government would make firesafe standards compulsory in cigarettes. But of course, making cigarettes safer would also make them more acceptable; it would be like the Pope insisting that homosexual men wear condoms. He doesn’t, because he’s not opposed to gays getting ill - he’s opposed to them having sex. The religion of healthianity isn't opposed to cigarettes killing people - it’s opposed to cigarettes.
(Some scientists believe that radiation poisoning is what kills smokers; the overuse of phosphate fertilisers in tobacco farming, they say, has massively increased people’s exposure to polonium.)
Air pollution is “taking eight months off the life of every UK resident,” according to a government study (Daily Mirror, 6 Apr 06). Friends of the Earth, an environmentalist pressure group, argues that the government could do a great deal to limit air pollution, but chooses not to. Modern intensive farming methods are causing significant rises in mental illness in Britain and other countries by removing essential nutrients from our diets, according to research by the Mental Health Foundation and Sustain (Daily Telegraph, 16 Jan 06). Meat produced by industrialized processes has a different body fat composition to the meat eaten by previous generations, and this and other factors have led to “large reductions in key nutrients.” This in turn causes changes in the human brain which can lead to Alzheimer's, depression and schizophrenia.
There’s loads more of this, and we will indeed have a bit more later. I could give you 100 pages of it, but I promise not to, provided you promise to think about my question: “If the people who rule us are so worried about our health, why are they only worried about the health effects of things we enjoy doing? Is it just coincidence?”
They oppose smoking because it is a sin.
(“They” being the priests of healthianity and the bishops of capital; religion and the rulers have been in alliance throughout history.)
The World Health Organisation has announced “that people who smoke will automatically be banned from employment with the organisation,” including “job applicants who admit to using tobacco only occasionally,” and non-smokers who chew tobacco or sniff snuff. (Independent, 12 Dec 05).
There can be no health reason for this; banning people from smoking at work would take care of that (and a ban on snuff-takers would hardly be necessary; secondary snuffing has yet to be invented). So this is not a worldly matter, this ban on employment: it is only explicable if we accept the antismokers’ view that smoking is a sin and smokers are sinners, and that to have any contact with them at all is to risk spiritual contamination.
Placed in its proper religious context, a ban condemned by rival antismoking groups as “rather foolish” makes good sense: you would not be surprised to hear that an organisation of fundamentalist Christians was unwilling to employ homosexuals. The motive there would not be a fear that homosexual employees would engage in sex on the premises, but that simply having them in the building would endanger the souls of the godly.
(The WHO, incidentally, must be one of the most repugnant organisations that has ever existed on this planet. It spends millions on conferences, on super-salaries, on offices in the safest and most sybaritic cities, yet it is incapable - unwilling would be the more honest word - to make any difference to the lives of the world’s ill and poor; a task which is left instead to charities, to mavericks, and to the exported doctors and nurses of blockaded and despised Cuba. “Only 10 per cent of the $100bn (£50bn) spent globally each year on health research is devoted to diseases responsible for 90 per cent of health problems.” [Independent, 10 Feb 07]. Most of the world’s epidemics today exist only for want of the money to buy universal courses of drugs which are already on the market. Supposing the WHO devoted just one year’s worth of its enormous antismoking budget to such a cause? Oh yes, and suppose your dog shat gold bars. That would be good, too. But the WHO is a cat’s-paw of capital, and your dog couldn’t give a damn about your mortgage.)
The professor of health psychology at University College London, commenting on a study showing that people who stop smoking “on a whim” are more likely to succeed than those who plan to stop, said that “quite small triggers can lead to renunciation of smoking.” (Daily Telegraph, 27 Jan 06). Renunciation: that’s a good, religious word. “I renounce the devil and all his works and pomps,” Christians say when they are baptised as adults.
In 1997, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared that “the managers of cigarette manufacturing companies bear a heavy sin and will suffer divine punishment.” Selling cigarettes is a violation of halachah, or Jewish law, said the rabbi, and smokers themselves “should have to stand before a religious court and receive 40 lashes.” The Israel Forum for the Prevention of Smoking enthusiastically welcomed Yosef's ruling. (www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/6447/edition_id/120/format/html/displaystory.html)
Unhealthy means pleasurable. That is a tenet of healthianity. And the other way around, too. Here’s proof:
A survey of children found that they knew which foods were healthy, but they didn’t like them because they were boring. (The Mirror, 26 Apr 99). They preferred tasty food. They understood that salad was “sensible,” but even so “no healthy foods made their top ten favourite meals.” No healthy foods? “Hot dogs were most popular in the north, while southern kids preferred pasta.”
Now, I wish I’d kept the rest of that day’s paper, I missed a trick there, because I could almost guarantee that in that issue of the Mirror, as in almost every issue, there would be a page of healthy recipes - a diet feature, showing women what to eat if they wanted to slim, or be more beautiful, or avoid cancer - and I can almost guarantee that it would have included pasta. Pasta is healthy: that’s official, everyone knows that. So why is pasta unhealthy for children? The answer, sadly, is obvious: because children enjoy it. If it gives pleasure it is, by definition, unhealthy.
“Pasta is a source of slow releasing energy and a healthy quick meal.” (Daily Mirror, 2 Feb 06).
Original sin can never be expunged. How about this: an official report warned that obesity was a “public health time bomb,” and therefore, “Despite the fact that the statistics also showed that people are eating better and exercising more, there were renewed calls for government action to promote healthier lifestyles.” (Independent, 22 Apr 06). Healthier, in this context, merely means holier - more repentant. You can never be holy enough - no matter how hard you strive to please the priests, you will never satisfy them; because if you did, their ministries would be at an end.
Smoking is a sin, and sinners must be shunned by decent people. (Especially - as in any religion - female sinners). The front page of the Daily Mirror, 25 Feb 06, showed a picture of a celebrity in her car holding a cigarette. The headline: “GMTV star Kate: 8 months pregnant and she’s smoking. See page 7.” Page 7 included Kate’s grovelling apology; she’d given up smoking when she became pregnant, and had suffered this lapse as a result of stress. She made her confession to that modern Inquisition, the celebrity-watchers: “I feel so mortified ... I don’t want to make excuses for myself because there are no excuses ... I feel like I’ve let myself and everyone down but no one can be more angry at me than myself.”
Not true, as it turns out. Morality commentator Miriam Stoppard was shocked: “I can hardly believe this picture I am so shocked. While Kate is smoking ... the baby is metaphorically gasping for breath ... How can she be unaware of what it could do to her child?”
Burn her, I say! Burn the unmaternal Satan-bitch!
The reward for not sinning is immortal life. It always has been. Everyone knows that. When smoking bans were introduced to bars and restaurants in Montreal, a local woman (a smoker) told the local paper that she approved because “I won’t die if I don’t smoke.” (The Suburban, 3 May 06).
In 1998, the British government announced that it was to spend an extra hundred million pounds on persuading people to give up smoking. The Daily Mirror (11 Dec 98) headlined this news thus: “£100m to beat cig evil.”
A 19th century British government official, involved in devising the policies which contributed to the Indian and Irish famines, described the latter as “The judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people, and as God had sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated: the selfish and the indolent must learn their lesson.” (Socialist History 29).
The famous antismoking guru, campaigner, hypnotherapist and businessman Allen Carr, according to a journalist who went to him for help stopping smoking, “counters one sort of brainwashing with another. Everything he says he repeats over and over again, hammering it into our conscious and subconscious minds. ‘Something evil has taken possession of you, but you can be free.’” (Independent, 15 Jan 90).
Some of the more colourful rightwing Christian organisations in the USA (which are now being promoted in the UK and elsewhere) specifically name smoking, homosexuality and abortion as the three great sins of the modern Babylon. James (the sixth of Scotland and first of England) called tobacco “an invention of Satan.” Michael Feodorovich, first of the Romanov tsars in Russia, banned the use of tobacco, as it was a deadly sin. The Reverend Thomas Reynolds, a Victorian Englishman, was the author of Smoke Not! (1866), Smoking: A Sure Sign of England’s Decline (1873) and Fifty-four Objections to Tobacco (1866), and founder of the British Anti-Tobacco Society.
In 1989, the National Society of Non-Smokers gave out to children antismoking carol sheets with which they might encourage their parents to give up. (Daily Telegraph, 3 Jan 89). I try not to sound alarmist, but it always upsets me a bit when people read Orwell’s 1984 and think “That’s a good idea.”
The use of children - of ‘innocent angels’ - in this way is characteristic of religion and totalitarian systems. The ban on smoking in public places in Scotland can be extended, without further legislation, by local authorities to cover outdoor places, such as parks, where children are likely to be present. (Daily Telegraph, 2 Jan 06).
An antismoke spokesman was once asked why, instead of urging smoking bans at work, he didn't support the provision of separate smoking rooms. He opposed this as segregation of non-smokers: “Why should it be the normal people who suffer instead of the minority?” (BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 30 Mar 98). I know of no religion which has not, at the height of its secular power, and in the name of the normal people, punished minorities for being minorities.
So: healthianity is a religion, I suggest. And religion has a purpose.
Nothing in history is neutral. Everything happens because one economic group comes up against another: landowners vs. factory owners, bosses vs. workers, kings vs. barons, rich vs. poor, apparatchiks vs. citizens.
Including religion: that is not “class neutral,” either. It has a purpose. Obviously, it has a purpose to those individuals for whom it is a solace against sadness or an inspiration to kindness or an excuse for evil. But it also has a general purpose, to the benefit of those who rule us.
The main purpose of religion is that it tells you that everything is your fault. Illness, poverty, unhappiness, failure ... they are not caused by unjust or inefficient social systems, or by oppression, or even by bad luck. They are caused by sin. Conservative Christians in industrial societies, for instance, have always argued that poverty is a direct result of moral failings.
The poor are poor because they sin, or because they sinned in a previous life, or because their parents were sinners. Those who suffer are those who do not follow the path of the righteous. All suffering is caused by sin: therefore, the suffering choose to be in pain.
The main purpose of antismoking and its related denominations, from the point of view of those who rule us, is that it assigns blame to victims, not victimisers, and - very importantly - that it does so in large part by convincing the victims themselves that they are to blame. If you eat too much, or drink too much, or smoke at all; if you eat the wrong things (or the things which were right last year but are wrong now), or you don’t exercise enough during your leisure time, or you exercise in the wrong way (by doing things you enjoy), then you are failing to live a “healthy lifestyle” - or, as it used to be called, a holy life.
You alone are to blame for every bad thing that happens to you, or to your family. The political or economic system you live under is irrelevant - so there's no point, for instance, in taking collective action to change it. Don’t join a trade union: join a gym. It isn't the system that needs changing; it's you, as an individual.
Sceptics and secularists might think that the difference in life expectancy and disease rates between rich and poor has an obvious cause: poverty. The poorer you are - in every country and in every century - the less likely you are, on average, to have a long and healthy life. Whenever and wherever the material gap between the classes has been narrowed (through trade unionism, higher wages, improved working conditions, pensions, socialised medicine, and so on), so the gap has narrowed. This is a statement of the obvious.
But to the antismoking cultist, poverty is irrelevant. Just as conventional religions say to the poor “Your troubles are not caused by poverty, but by sin,” healthianity says “You're not unhealthy because you're poor; you're not ill because you grew up in a damp flat, on an inadequate diet, and worked long hours in a fume-filled factory between the ages of 16 and 65 ... you're ill because you smoke. Nothing else.” (And if you don't smoke, you drink; and if you don't drink, you are obese. And if you're a slim, teetotal, non-smoker, then you must be a secret masturbator - that would explain it.)
The crucial point is this: illness is an individual choice.
(Obviously, this only applies to the common folk - to smokers, drinkers, fatties, TV
watchers, and so on. Well-off people are not usually made ill by their vices; when they get ill it is often as a result, not of their sins, but of their virtues - frequently it's because they work too hard.)
Smoking gives pleasure, and pleasure is always sinful; pleasure must be paid for.
There is no such thing as free pleasure, as getting away with it. Because smoking is a pleasure, by giving it up, you can make yourself a better person - you can achieve spirituality through sacrifice, like monks and nuns, by surrendering the pleasures of the flesh.
An unexplained rise in teenage cancers in Britain might be caused by high living standards, experts suggest. Because teenagers are now well fed and in better health, taller and heavier, it is easier for cancers to spread. (Independent, 2 Mar 04). Just an idea, but wouldn't it help if we were to pay their parents less for working longer hours, reduce young people’s wages and student grants, and generally lower their living standards? Oh - I see they’ve already thought of that. Good work.
It is not by coincidence that all organised religions are opposed to pleasure; that most of them either ban outright or disapprove of smoking, drinking, recreational sex, dancing and so on.
I’ll have more to say about the centrality of anti-pleasure - and about the absolute medical necessity of pleasure itself - a little later. But first, I am going to take my life in my hands and talk about numbers. I have no O-Level in maths, so I present all this humbly, and begging your kind indulgence.
Magic numbers ...
The figures used in the scriptures of healthianity often seem to be chosen for their mystic resonance rather than their statistical significance - or else, they are simply picked at random. To the antismoking priests, it doesn’t matter that the numbers have no scientific basis: the cause is true, therefore the figures are true.
The end justifies the maths. (You don’t believe that? Please hold on.)
But no doubt the following figures are all believed genuine by their authors - which makes them even more interesting, I think.
“Every year, smoking kills 120,000 people in the UK.” (The Mirror, 16 Dec 97). “Smoking kills 120,000 people annually.” (The Mirror, 9 Mar 00). So, apparently there’s been no change in the number of deaths caused by smoking between 1997 and 2000, despite the drop in the number of smokers during that period. According to Dr Mark Porter, writing in the Radio Times [date unknown] “Cigarette consumption in the UK has halved in the past 25 years.” So how does that work, then?
“Tobacco kills about 120,000 people in the UK every year - 330 a day - and is responsible for 20 per cent of all deaths.” (Daily Mirror, 8 Jan 04). Still no change in the magic number, then, six years on. By the way, I wonder where they get these figures from, do you?
Figures like: “22 per cent of all male deaths and 11 per cent of all female deaths are due to smoking,” (Daily Mirror, 13 Jan 04), and “Smoking kills an estimated 114,000 people each year, of whom 30,000 die from heart disease.” (Independent, 1 Jan 04). “One in six deaths among adults aged 35 and over is due to smoking.” (Nottingham Topper, 12 Feb 97).
“1 in 3 kids aged 15 smokes ... the habit will kill half of them.” (The Mirror, 6 Dec 97).
This idea of counting people who are “killed by smoking” is worth another look, a bit later on, but the next magic number is an example of one of my favourite categories: “On average, smokers lose more than one day of life every week.” (Nottingham Topper, 12 Feb 97).
Does the antismoking movement seriously want to claim that “average” smokers live only six-sevenths as long as average non-smokers? Or do they just rely on the fact that most of us hear the message, but don’t listen too closely?
How much longer do non-smokers live? It’s very difficult to get a straight answer to this, for obvious reasons: one, because nobody knows how long anyone is going to live - they can only guess - but also because, once it’s put into context, you begin to wonder what all the fuss is about.
(There’s also the fact that repeated “intervention studies,” studying actual events rather than statistical possibilities, show smokers living longer than non-smokers, but I’m not going to even mention that yet, because it might do your head in at this stage. Gently does it, eh?)
A figure which crops up occasionally (e.g., Daily Telegraph, 26 Apr 06) is that smokers die about five years before non-smokers. Now, obviously but rather importantly, those years come at the end of your life. Instead of dying at 80, say, you die at 85 - the extra years come between 80 and 85, in the nursing home, wondering why your granddaughter never visits. You can’t choose the extra years. You can’t have them between 23 and 24, so that you are 23 for ages, you can't have your extra longevity during your blessed summer of sex and friends and staying up and evenings that never end and flirting and talking and doing more in one weekend than a 50-year-old does in a year. You have to take them when they are given: in the cruel winter of perpetual bereavement and unbearable waiting.
It’s your choice: a lifetime’s pleasure denied, a lifetime of pious worry, in exchange for five years of more of an awful same.
Later on, we’ll find out what a “smoking-related death” is - I think you’ll enjoy that. I really do. Meanwhile, some more magic numbers, at random from the pile by my chair:
“The number of girl smokers aged 16-24 has increased by 5% since 1994. One in three now smoke at least once a week.” (The Mirror, 8 May 97). That is an interesting and important item, since it tells us something surprising: when calculating the number of smokers, it seems that someone who has one cigarette a week is given equal statistical weight to someone who has a hundred a day.
“After only 20 minutes [from giving up smoking] blood pressure and pulse return to normal.” (Somerset Standard, 31 Dec 98). “20 minutes after smoking your last cigarette your blood pressure begins to drop.” (Daily Mirror, 16 Feb 06). Well, that means that 20 minutes after every cigarette I ever smoke my blood pressure begins to drop, since my body can’t possibly know whether or not it’s my last one ever. So I don’t think I’ll bother worrying about my blood pressure, then.
“In Russia, nearly 50 per cent of men and one in 10 women smoke. Figures show the lung cancer rate has increased by 63 per cent during the past 10 years.” (Independent, 10 Dec 05). And has the smoking rate increased by 63%, too? If not - what’s the relevance? And is it possible that the reason that all cancers, all serious illnesses, have risen massively in the former USSR in the last decade - while the average life expectancy has plummeted - is because the abolition of the free health service (along with state housing, guaranteed employment, and so on) has meant that tens of millions no longer have access to decent medical care? “By 1998, [following the reintroduction of capitalism into Russia], life expectancy had fallen by ten years.” (Tribune, 6 Nov 98). No: they are ill because they sin.
“Smoking will kill a billion this century warns expert,” was the headline (Independent, 5 Oct 05); but here’s what the Oxford University professor of medical statistics and epidemiology based it on: “If more than 20 million of these [30 billion who, he claims, are taking up smoking globally every year] continue to smoke and half are killed by their habit, then we are going to have more than 10 million tobacco-related deaths a year.” Well, yes ... mind you, I could say “If more than 20 million of these continue to smoke and half live to be 143 ... ”
“Cigarette smokers look 10 years older than their age.” (The Mirror, 3 Feb 00). What does their age look like? Do all non-smokers of the same age look alike? How come the smokers look precisely 10 years older? What - all of them? This figure has no meaning at all.
“After 15 years [after giving up smoking] the risk of getting a smoking-related disease is reduced to that of a life-long non smoker.” (The Mirror, 30 Dec 99). So - given that virtually everyone who dies of a supposedly smoking-related cause does so when they are old - can anyone explain to me why, playing the statistics, you should not smoke as much as you fancy until the age of about 45, and then give up, knowing that your chances of dying from a “smoking-related disease” are vanishingly tiny?
“Non-smokers live at least six years longer than smokers.”(The Mirror, 3 Feb 00). No ifs, no buts, they just do. All of them.
Here’s something you perhaps didn’t know. A non-smoker’s likelihood of not getting lung cancer is more than 99%. On the other hand, a heavy smoker’s chance of not getting lung cancer is more than 99%. (Independent, 16 Nov 04).
Speaking at an international seminar on heart disease in 1990, a professor from Aberdeen discussed the puzzling 30-year decline in heart disease amongst women in Britain, and suggested it might be to do with their diet; the increase in smoking amongst women had not had any effect on their rates of heart disease, he noted. (Sunday Correspondent, 17 Jun 90).
They say over and again that half of all smokers “die because of their habit.” Here, now: this half must include, I suppose, everyone who dies of what has been classified a “smoking-related disease.” Thus, if you were 103 years old, and you smoked three cigarettes a week, and you died of a heart attack, you would be included in this “half of all smokers” who “die because of their habit.” Which would be silly. You would have died, in fact, of being 103. (Or in a windsurfing accident; I can’t be expected to know which at this stage.)
I’m saying: the average life expectancy in the UK is X. Some proportion of smokers will die at the age of X+5 or X+10 (as well as some dying at X-5 or X-10). Saying that half of all smokers die “because of their habit” therefore tells us nothing - or rather, a lot less than nothing - about the comparative longevity of smokers and non-smokers. It would be just as sensible to say that these X+5 smokers “survive because of their habit” as to say that they die because of it. It would be just as sensible, which is to say not sensible at all.
“Half of all regular cigarette smokers will eventually die from their habit.” (The People, 25 May 97). At what age will they die? Because if they die “from their habit” aged 92, then most of their non-smoking contemporaries will already have died from some other cause. It’s important to remember that 100% of all smokers and non-smokers will eventually die, so the ubiquitous “half will eventually die” factoid only has significance if it has an age attached to it ... which it never has.
Besides which: “The average smoker who dies from their habit loses between 20 and 25 years of their life expectancy.” (The People, 25 May 97). Since most smokers, clearly, don’t die 20-25 years below average life expectancy, this is plainly untrue. (Average life expectancy for a man in Glasgow is 69 [Morning Star, 8 Dec 05]; does this mean that Glaswegian smokers die, on average, in their forties?).
The Institute of Actuaries found in 1992 that the “peak age” of death for insured male non-smokers was 87; 81 for smokers. And for women, it was 91 for non-smokers and 85 for smokers. (Independent, 15 Oct 92). “If you smoke you will die in your 80s.” Not much of a slogan, really, is it?
A spokesman for Cancer Partners UK said: “The number of men who smoke has risen over the past 30 years.” (Western Daily Press, 17 Jan 07). A few lines later, the same piece tells us that “The incidence of lung cancer among men has actually fallen [...] sharply from 104 per 100,000 in 1981 to 54 per 100,000 in 2004.” Which proves - if you believe in such things - that smoking prevents lung cancer. Doesn’t it? Because, remember - as they say - “You can’t speak out of both sides of your mouth.” Either you accept the basis of this stuff - all of it - or you don’t (none of it). You can’t pick and choose.
“Half of all smokers will die. We are not talking quick easy deaths. Lung cancer can be a long, drawn-out painful experience,” said a British Medical Association spokesman (Independent, 4 Jun 04). So now half of all smokers die of lung cancer? When did that happen? And can we see the figures, please? And, don’t all smokers die, rather than half? And how does that tie up with this: every year, 99,993 non-smokers per 100,000 don’t die of lung cancer. And so do 99,834 smokers. (Morning Star, date unknown).
It goes on. It’s bollocks, but it goes on. The general secretary of the WHO (Independent, 3 May 99): “Four million people are killed each year by tobacco industry products. Half of all long-term smokers will be killed prematurely by tobacco industry products. Five hundred million people alive today are likely to be killed by tobacco. Half of these will die in their productive middle years.” At what stage will we be able to check that figure, I wonder? When will we be able to say that the 500 million who were “likely” to be killed were in actuality killed? Because science is only science when you can check it. Otherwise it’s astrology.
They’re always telling us how many smokers die each day. All right: X smokers die each day. Fine: now, in order to give that figure some meaning, can you tell us how many non-smokers die each day? Because if X is a million, and the number of non-smokers is twelve, you’ve got my attention. But if X is X, and the other number is X+1%, then I’m just going to carry on doing my crossword and hope you’ll take the hint and go away.
Can you really specify cause of death so precisely? If someone dies of a heart attack, can you honestly say that it was caused 100% exclusively by smoking, and not at all by stress, heredity, poverty, overwork or unemployment, viral infection, previous ill health and trauma, pollution ... everything?
Here’s the gen-sec again: “[By 2025] tobacco will kill 10 million a year. That is almost a tripling of today’s level. Tobacco will then be the single largest contributor to the global burden of disease.” Not poverty then? Not inequality? Not under-development caused by imperialism? Not the lack of drugs to treat treatable killers like HIV, asthma and blindness? No: just smoking. Only smoking. Smoking alone. Nothing else on earth, nothing else in the entire fucking history of the whole sodding universe has ever caused any harm to anyone anywhere. Only smoking. And snuff, of course. (Snuff? Oh, yes. You wait. we’re coming to snuff.)
“At least one in four” long-term smokers will develop the incurable lung condition COPD, according to a study published in the BMJ. (Morning Star, 17 Oct 06). What is the definition of a smoker here? Someone who smokes one a day, one a week, once a year on Boxing Day when his mother-in-law’s gone home? Or someone who smokes 100 a day? Plainly, the risk cannot be the same for both groups. And incidentally, COPD is also caused by “exposure to environmental pollution and hazards at work such as dust, fumes and gases. Certain groups, such as ex-miners, are particularly vulnerable to COPD.” (Western Daily Press, 30 Oct 06). But only because they smoke, obviously.
It’s not only tobacco that is a leading cause of meaningless numbers. A children’s mental health charity has warned that “half” of all young users of cannabis suffer side effects such as paranoia and blackouts (Morning Star, 11 Dec 06). What’s worse, “more than 80 per cent of young people in their teens and early twenties polled” had tried cannabis. As ever, I am happy to receive corrections to my maths, but I take that to mean that more than 40 per cent of all young people in Britain are currently suffering paranoia and blackouts as a direct result of smoking cannabis. You’d think someone would have noticed by now, wouldn't you?
“Nearly one in five deaths in those aged 35 and over are a result of smoking.” (Daily Telegraph, 31 Aug 06). What proportion of those over-35s were 36 when they died, and how many were 86? We’re not told - of course - but without that information, the figure has no meaning; it is merely an incantation.
US Vice-President Dick Cheney is said to have said, in November 2001, “If there is a one percent chance” that al-Qeda could get its hands on weapons of mass destruction “we need to treat it as a certainty.” This became known in Washington DC as “The one per cent doctrine.” But Cheney didn’t invent it; the antismokers did.
“Smoking can increase wrinkles by 82 per cent. You’ll get them around your mouth from dragging on cigarettes, around your eyes from squinting through smoke, and each puff produces a billion free radicals.” (Asda Magazine, Jan 06). I don’t want to bang on about this, but does that sound like pure made-up gibberish to you? It’s message is clear enough, though: sin makes women unmarriageable. A billion, eh? Cor, that’s a lot!
According to the World Health Organisation “tobacco caused 10,000 deaths worldwide every day ... about 250 million children alive today will eventually die as a result of smoking tobacco.” (Morning Star, 1 Jun 98). What does “eventually” mean? Will they be 15, or 45, or 105? Because it sort of matters, don’t you reckon?
“One in three kids aged 15 smokes and two in three 16-year-olds are addicted. The habit will kill half of them.” (Daily Mirror, 11 Dec 98). No sources given for any of this hysterical nonsense, of course. I’m sure the sources exist, I’m not suggesting they don’t, I’m just pointing out that as long as most people get their health scares through the news media, they’ll never have a chance to examine them, even at the most simple level, to see whether it looks as if they make sense. But, anyway - first of all: two thirds of all sixteen year olds in the UK are addicted to smoking? And what does “kill half of them” mean - that a third of all the teenagers in Britain are dying of smoking, right now? It’s just spewed out at random. It’s just speaking in tongues.
Harvard University researchers announced that eating tomato ketchup twice a week reduces by a third the risk of heart attacks and cancer. (Daily Telegraph, 9 Jun 98). “An orange or tangerine eaten once a day will reduce the risk of developing lung cancer by 30 per cent, according to a study of 400,000 people in Europe and the US.” (Daily Mirror, 14 Jun 04). A study by the National Cancer Research Institute in Tokyo looked at the effects of eating fresh vegetables on a daily basis. They found that the least likely people to get cancer were those who didn't eat meat, smoke or drink alcohol, and ate fresh vegetables. However - it also found that those who ate meat, smoked, drank alcohol and ate fresh vegetables every day “reduced the risk of cancer mortality by a third.” This applied even to “heavy smokers.” (The Vegetarian, Jul 85).
An enormous, decade-long study in Japan found that people who drink five or more cups of green tea a day have a 16% lower “risk of dying from any cause,” while the risk of death from heart disease was reduced by 26 per cent. (Western Daily Press, 13 Sep 06). (I don't believe a word of it, but if - on the basis of studies and surveys - governments spend millions on preventing smoking, shouldn't they also spend on making us drink green tea, in direct proportion to the life-saving percentages?)
If you were to add up all of these “by a third” reductions (and I’ve got dozens of them here), you’d have a lot more than 100%. So, if you were to follow all of them - tangerines, green tea, fresh vegetables, everything - it would mean that you could smoke as much as you wanted, and you’d be guaranteed not to get cancer. It would have to mean that, because if it doesn't, then none of it means anything at all. You can’t decide to believe half of it, and dismiss the other half: that’s not science, that’s Anglicanism.
We’ll leave the magic numbers now, just pausing to enjoy what is possibly the most useful smoking-related statistic I’ve ever encountered: “A person on 25 cigarettes a day for 50 years will have smoked the equivalent of one cigarette more than 22 miles long.” (Independent, 25 Mar 93.)
For years - for decades - it was a well known medical fact that stomach ulcers were caused by high living. Too much booze, spicy food, excitement and smoking irritated the protective mucus lining of the stomach, which exposed the tissue beneath to stomach acids. In the 1980s, two maverick pathologists discovered the real cause: a bacterium, named Helicobacter pylori. You catch stomach ulcers, the way you catch a cold - you don’t get them as a punishment for enjoying yourself. (The same organism is thought to cause two thirds of stomach cancers).
Emphysema in coal miners was thought to be caused by smoking - it was the miners’ own fault, in other words - until a hostile and sceptical medical establishment finally accepted the vast body of evidence compiled by Welsh pathologist Robert Ryder proving a link between emphysema and coal dust. Ryder, the state-educated son of a fireman, began publishing his findings in 1970: it was not until 1993 that emphysema was eventually recognised as an industrial disease, meaning that sufferers were entitled to compensation. (Daily Telegraph, 24 May 07).
The default position of medicine has always been that illness is caused by pleasure.
Pleasure is sin, and sin must be fought. The WHO general secretary addresses us once more: “For example, cherry-flavoured chewing-tobacco is sold in several countries. What more do we possibly need to know to decide that fruit-or candy-flavoured tobacco should not be sold? The answer is simple: nothing.” (Independent, 3 May 99).
I used to buy a very pleasant cherry-flavoured pipe tobacco from Smith’s Snuff Shop on Charing Cross Road - I didn't know it was so evil, but when you think about it ... the fruit flavouring made it more enjoyable. That should have told me.
Today’s major health problems, explained the British Prime Minister (Daily Telegraph, 27 Jul 06), involved obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse, diabetes and sexually transmitted diseases. So the answer, surely, is simple: ban drinking, smoking, eating and screwing - if people would only stop enjoying themselves, their health would be perfect and they would live forever. They would achieve immortal life, without sin, through the renunciation of joy. This is the promise which healthianity brings to every wretched sinner.
Watching too much television gives children fifteen specific health problems, according to research by a psychologist, including obesity, eyesight troubles, hormonal changes, exhaustion, diabetes and autism. (BBC News website, 19 Feb 07).
In 1994, a French pharmaceutical company announced that it had developed a pill which would provide all the health benefits of red wine (Daily Mirror, 28 Apr 94) - without, obviously, the unwanted pleasures of actually drinking the filthy stuff in its natural state.
(Red wine’s interesting. In religion, revelation leads to conversion. So, for the proponents of healthianity, red wine was bad for you, and is now good for you; soon it will be bad for you again. It is never neutral - it never just is. It belongs either to God or to Satan. In healthianity as in all religions, the entire universe swings on an axis, from the old position to the new, whenever a new dogma is proclaimed. Therefore, it’s foolish to take comfort from the current partially pro-alcohol stance of health orthodoxy: the debunking is every bit as scienceless and dangerous as the bunking - and, inevitably, the rebunking. )
Leisure has always been bad for the lower classes. Only through hard work can they be healthy - and too busy to plot against their betters. Arbeit macht frei. Union demands for leisure time in the 19th century were argued against on this basis, that too much free time would lead to sin, ill health, dissolution, and subversion. Today, they worry about the underclass sitting on the sofa watching TV when they should be, if not working late, then certainly working out at the gym.
A German academic found that going on holiday could cause a permanent fall in intelligence levels - especially if the holiday is lazy and relaxing. (Sunday Telegraph, 19 Apr 98). “Don’t kid yourself on the exercise front - new evidence suggests that gentle exercise such as gardening and golf doesn't offer significant protection against heart disease.” (Radio Times, 20 Jan 01). In other words - if you enjoy it, it doesn't count as penance. The Catholics, after all, are told to say a hundred Hail Marys, not to whistle their favourite show tune.
“Self-denial, with self-love, puts you in touch with what matters most to Christians,” according to the head of Theology at Durham University. A spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain argued that self-denial is “a teaching of all prophets, including Mohammed.” (Independent, 7 Feb 05).
Over the centuries, all these sinful activities - or pleasures, as some of us might call them - have been condemned by authorities religious and temporal, as being injurious to the mental, physical and spiritual health of the pleb: dancing, sex, masturbation, drinking, smoking, sport, gluttony. (I don’t claim that as a complete list.) By contrast, suffering has always been good for you (at least as far as the Christian world is concerned). Fasting and scourging, dieting and cold showers, a hard run before breakfast; these things will keep you sound, spiritually and physically; giving up for Lent all those small things which make your life bearable - and then, because Lent doesn’t last very long, giving them up for ever.
Because ill health is not only caused by sin, but is a sin itself, sinners are encouraged to do penance. That’s why things which make you better, or prevent you getting ill, are unpleasant: every child knows that medicine doesn't work unless it tastes horrible.
Women who keep tidy, clean houses are less likely to get breast cancer than those who don’t, according to a study by the Medical Research Council. The reason being that house work is good exercise. (Daily Telegraph, 29 Dec 06).
But a doctor from Cheltenham - in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (2 Jan 07) - was scathing. She saw the advice as being intended to put women “back in the kitchen.” She pointed out that “neither occupational nor recreational exercise” can give any protection whatsoever from breast cancer. However, as she spotted, the amount of housework a woman does is likely to increase “with the number of children living in the home.” It’s well-established that having children and breastfeeding offers protection from breast cancer - so the women doing the most housework are likely to be those with the most children, and it’s the latter that protects them; but the MRC had chosen to see the protection as coming from the penance of housework.
Something that does cause breast cancer, however, is working night shifts; night workers’ bodies produce far less of a hormone which inhibits the cancer. (Daily Telegraph, 1 Dec 05).
Research published in Tobacco Control (Daily Telegraph, 25 May 06) claimed that smoking just one single cigarette in your life could reconfigure your brain to make you think you enjoyed nicotine. This idea - that smokers only think they enjoy smoking, but actually don’t - has become very common in recent years, amongst quacks and specialists alike (in so far as it’s possible these days to separate the two). It is very easily destroyed, by anyone who speaks English.
You can’t mistakenly think that you enjoy something. If you think you enjoy it, you enjoy it - that’s what the word means. Pleasure is a feeling - if you feel it, you're experiencing it. You can change your mind about pleasure (“At first I really liked it, but now I’ve really gone off it”) but you can’t be wrong about it. Just as, if something makes you laugh it has made you laugh - if it has sexually aroused you, it has aroused you - the reaction is the thing itself. An emotion is always real; you can pass off a counterfeit emotion to someone else, but not to yourself.
But what do we know? We’re not them.
“Smokers shell out a fortune in the mistaken belief that they achieve pleasure by smoking, filling the coffers of unscrupulous businesses with their hard-earned cash.” (Independent, 18 Feb 06). “Smoking is relaxing: People think this because of the pleasure they get.” (“101 Health Myths,” The People, 6 Jul 97). Personally, I find pleasure quite relaxing - though obviously, I only think I do.
“You don’t have to be poor to fall for the idea that smoking is pleasurable. But you do have to be in thrall to nicotine. The poor are more in thrall to nicotine because they are more vulnerable to the grotesque idea that an action as damaging as smoking is a pleasure.” (Independent, 12 Jun 04.). God, the poor are thick, aren’t they? It was a mistake to let them breed, I said so at the time.
The wages of sin is death - not pleasure. Smokers who think they enjoy smoking are simply wrong, according to the antismoking gospel. Best-selling author of books on how to give up, Allen Carr, explained that smoking was a “confidence trick,” and that he helped people give up by talking about “quitting, not giving up, because we make them realise that there are no benefits of smoking whatsoever.” (Independent, 8 March 05).
Actually - and you should treat this whole section as if it were in parentheses, because we’ll be back to pleasure in a mo - there do seem to be quite a few benefits to smoking. In no particular order (or, indeed, any order at all):
“Smokers have more brain power at night due to nicotine,” according to research at Surrey University. Antismokers protested that the study should never have been published, because it might “give kids the wrong idea that smoking boosts their minds.” (The Mirror, 13 Apr 98). Which was, of course, precisely the finding of the study; but what good is truth, if it contradicts the Truth?
Ulcerative colitis is helped by smoking (Independent, 27 Jul 99; Sunday Telegraph, 26 Feb 06). The latter source also mentions nicotine’s role as a preventive against Parkinson’s, and reports a report in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology on smoking as a treatment for a variety of skin disorders, including recurrent herpes, pustular acne, persistent aphthous ulcers of the mouth, and pyoderma gangrenosum. (The same piece quotes an unnamed “prominent public health specialist” on the subject of passive smoking: “It’s rotten science but in a good cause. It will help us get rid of cigarettes and become a smoke-free society. And that’s all that really matters.” Not for the first or last time, I will declare: there is not one single informed person on this planet who sincerely believes in the existence of passive smoking.)
Studies show that fewer smokers than non-smokers get UC, and those who smoke while they have the condition report improvements. It’s thought nicotine might thicken the mucus on the lining of the colon, thus protecting it. (Independent, 28 Sep 92; 4 Aug 03). This has been known about for decades, but it would be a brave GP or specialist who admitted it to any patient who was not a close and trusted friend. (Note, however, that symptoms of the related Crohn’s Disease seem to be made worse by smoking).
If you don’t have a family history of lung cancer, and you have healthy lungs, and you do have a family history of ulcerative colitis, and you have unhealthy guts, shouldn’t your GP advise you to smoke one or two cigarettes a day - not basing that advice on any unorthodox or speculative theory, but purely on established medical knowledge? Or shouldn’t she at least check the available statistics, to discover whether - under those circumstances, and taking into account your age and other factors - moderate smoking might do you more harm, or more good? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t the universal and ubiquitous medical advice to stop smoking be a little more targeted, so that people who (according to current medical knowledge) would benefit from stopping smoking are encouraged to stop smoking, while people who (according to current medical knowledge) would not, are not?
And the same goes for Alzheimer’s. If you have a family tree festooned with sufferers from senility - and free of lung cancer patients - surely your doctor is breaking the chief amongst the sacred principles of Hippocrates (“First, do no harm”) if she tells you not to smoke, since smoking is a proven preventative of Alzheimer’s (the only one that is proven, incidentally)?
“Eighty per cent of smokers do it primarily to self-medicate emotional problems,” psychologist Oliver James believes. “They are using cigarettes as a form of antidepressant or tranquilliser, a drug of solace for negative emotions.” (Independent, 8 Mar 05). He almost makes that sound like a bad thing! But how can it be - when the only two alternatives to this ancient and well-tested form of herbal medicine are non-medication, or the use of much harsher medicines. Add a significant and permanent increase in mental problems to the awful price some pay for giving up smoking (according to a 2001 study in the US by psychologist David Gilbert; same source.)
Smoking might reduce the risk of developing breast cancer - according to research by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (Daily Telegraph, 21 May 98) - in women who are genetically predisposed to the disease. Those women are, it’s generally agreed, by far and away the ones who are most likely to get breast cancer; 80% of them develop it before the age of 70. Smoking reduces their risk by 50%, according to the WHO report. This is surely the single greatest breakthrough in breast cancer prevention there has ever been, by a long way. 80%! And then 50%! Incredible numbers. But the director of the Agency said: “We would hate it if women started smoking because of this study.” Why? Even going by antismoking’s own figures, such women would, on average, have more years of good health to gain than to lose from smoking. Presumably, because preventing cancer is merely desirable, whereas obeying taboos is essential. Cancer can kill you, but the gods can damn your soul.
(And incidentally, alcohol saves more lives than it takes, according to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine [Independent on Sunday, 23 May 04]. Alcohol is blamed for 13,000 deaths a year [it doesn't say where; England and Wales, perhaps] but is thought to prevent 15,000 deaths from heart disease.
In 1996, researchers at the University of California tested young smokers and non-smokers and found that when it came to rapid memory and quick recall, “A smoker’s brain is busier.” Smokers have better memories than non-smokers. Now, naturally, I don't believe this, any more than I believe the antismoking findings; I’m a smoker, and when I try to use my “rapid memory” you can hear the agonising, and usually futile, grinding noises a hundred yards away. I don’t know - and don’t care - whether (as various peer-reviewed projects carried out at prestigious universities and research centres around the world have suggested) smoking helps prevent or alleviate Parkinson’s disease, increases alertness, or “strengthens the communications between neurons in the hippocampus.” I suspect about this what I suspect about the supposed evil effects of smoking: that it’s rarely that simple.
I only want to say:
All medicines (which is another word for drugs) have good and bad effects: aspirin, digitalis, alcohol, penicillin ... look up the history of heroin, and amaze yourself. (Honestly - do it now. I’ll wait here.) What rational reason can there be for treating nicotine as if it were the only medicine ever discovered which has only bad effects?
Smoking was long thought a preventive against plague; schoolboys at Eton were at one time required to smoke, for this reason, it is said, and those who refused were beaten. Well into the twentieth century, smoking was known to give protection against many infectious illnesses, as well as respiratory disorders, and was routinely recommended for these purposes by GPs. Of course, as we know, everything in the past was wrong, everything in the present is correct, and everything in the future will be exactly as it is now. Yes? That was true a hundred years ago, and it’s still true today.
Will smokers survive the next flu pandemic in greater numbers than non-smokers and ex-smokers? During the terrible 1918 outbreak, workplaces where smoking had previously been banned reintroduced it (Times, 23 Oct 18), because some (though not all) medical authorities believed that fumigating the respiratory system with smoke might, logically enough, provide some protection against infection.
Nicotine has been proven an effective treatment of Tourette's Syndrome and related life-ruining conditions; better than existing drugs, which have foul side effects. (Independent, 12 Apr 94; Morning Star, 12 Apr 94). Why not let responsible adults self-medicate, if they are doing so using a delivery system which makes overdose virtually impossible, and the potential negative side-effects of which exist only in theory? Surely actually existing and immediate health threats - clear and present dangers - should take priority over potential, future threats?
Physicians in Elizabethan times named tobacco Herba panacea - the plant which cures all diseases. I doubt any drug cures all; not even aspirin. Not even alcohol. But were the best minds of the Elizabethan age 100% wrong in 100% of cases? Are you confident that no babies have been smuggled out in the bath water, ever, while you weren't looking?
One or two academics occasionally surface to admit that they find the ignoring of nicotine's benefits “odd,” or even “worrying.” But they must quickly duck down again, if they are not to be sniped. Very few properly controlled trials are carried out on the potential benefits of smoking - financing and publication are difficult to secure - so it may be that many of them will never be known, except to folklore.
People suffering from schizophrenia almost always smoke - literally, almost without exception - at least, those whose symptoms are under control do. Self-medication, you understand; it’s known that smoking can reverse some of the more terrible side effects of commonly used schizophrenia medicines.
Did I mention Alzheimer’s? My gran had it; I daresay yours did, too. She was a non-smoker, lifelong. Repeated studies have shown that smokers have a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. This was first discovered in the 1920s - then ignored for half a century - then discovered again - and is now being ignored again. (Independent, 4 Aug 03). A spokesman for the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said “wearily” that: “They don't get Alzheimer's because they die first. Smokers die on average nine years before everyone else.” (Big Issue, 15 Jan 01). Nine years, this time, eh? Doesn’t matter if it’s ten years; that’s still well within the age group for Alzheimer’s.
Research suggests that nicotine reduces anxiety, improves the flow of blood to the brain, counteracts pain and protects nerve cells against damage. (Independent, 4 Aug 03).
Everyone accepts that all “good” drugs also have bad side effects - but are reluctant to think that “bad” drugs have good side effects. If they cared about your health, they would be making use of smoking’s benefits. They don’t, which proves that they don’t.
Plus, of course, tobacco is a natural substance - so it can’t be patented - so drug companies can’t make money out of it so easily.
“We can all think of plenty of reasons why we shouldn't smoke. Exercise is easier as a non-smoker [Cor, doesn't that sound fun? Get fit in order to get fitter! Who says life is pointless?], money is more plentiful, and quality of life and health are improved. There are no good reasons for smoking.” - Tessa Jowell, Public Health Minister (Daily Mirror, 11 Dec 98).
Please, Miss - I can think of one. Pleasure. Some people find it enjoyable. And pleasure is a good thing, not an evil thing; pleasure isn't something to feel ashamed of, or guilty for. To hell with “naughty but nice,” and puddings with names like Temptation or Sinful. Pleasure isn't a sin. Pleasure is good. It is something worthwhile in its own right. It is an end, not merely a means - it is an end to be desired. It is worth striving for, and it is worth paying for. It’s not nothing. (Unless you’re religious).
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that pleasure is good for you - that this may be one of its evolutionary benefits, which would perhaps explain why so many species experience it, and why they expend so much time and effort pursuing it. Certainly it is well established that people suffering from what psychologists call “anhedonia” (an inability to enjoy) have rates of illness roughly double those of the general population (Sunday Telegraph, 7 Jan 07).
A study in France, following that nation's victory in the 1998 football World Cup, found that deaths from heart attacks fell by a quarter on the day of the victory; researchers believe euphoria and lowered stress levels explain this. (Independent, 1 Jul 06).
Studies in “human psychopharmacology” at the University of Reading have shown again that enjoying “treats” combats stress, reduces symptoms of existing conditions and protects existing good health. The pleasures include “alcoholic drinks, chocolate, coffee, ice cream, savoury snacks, smoking, sweet drinks and tea.” (Daily Telegraph, 13 Jun 96).
Scientists at the University of Michigan found that unhappy, hostile old men were more at risk of heart disease than cheerful smokers. (9to5MW, 25 Nov 02).
Pleasure is good for you; stress reduction is good for you. Smoking gives me pleasure and reduces my stress. Ergo ...
Bertolt Brecht, the great Marxist playwright, apparently said of pleasure-seeking that “Wherever it is neglected or maligned, something is rotten.” But I’ve got another quote for you, here. A man whose widow sued tobacco companies after he died of cancer left behind a final statement, to be read to the court, which included these revealing words: “God forgive me, but I enjoyed it.” (Independent, 8 Oct 03). Enjoyment, healthianity teaches us, is something for which we must ask God’s forgiveness.
All right, people said: smoking’s bad for me. Supposing I grant you that. Thanks for telling me, now I’ll make up my own mind. Perhaps I’ll stop, perhaps I’ll cut down, perhaps I’ll carry on. It’s my health. They’re my lungs.
And the whole business could have ended right there.
No. Religion doesn’t work like that. Religions do not achieve their goals, declare themselves satisfied, and close themselves down.
So: the smoker had to be moved from victim to villain - as in mediaeval witch-hunting, when a woman who might have been considered bonkers, or even possessed by demons, was instead reclassified as an actor of evil, rather than as someone on whom evil was acting.
The stakes must always be upped: heavy smoking was bad, then all smoking was bad, then second-hand smoke was fatal, then it was fatal to pets and children, then even being intimate with, or being related to, a smoker, became fatal. (Also, as with masturbation and other sins, the side-effects become more and more bizarre and desperate: “Smokers have smaller penises than non-smokers.” [Dr Mark Porter, Radio Times, date unknown].)
It is the sin which is dangerous, not the dose of the poison.
Some people smoke before they have children, and stop once they’re expecting. Very sensible, that sounds to me. You can’t be too careful, can you, where kids are concerned? But it’s not enough, of course - there can be no accommodation with Satan. In 2006, researchers announced that fathers who smoke - even long before their children are conceived - are harming their children. This is due to some mysterious mutational effect on the DNA which children inherit from their same-sex parent. The terrible results: men who smoked when young went on to have sons who were “significantly fatter than average” by the age of nine.
“Children of parents who smoke are more likely to binge drink, experiment with drugs, skip school, steal, vandalise and have under-age sex,” according to a study carried out at Bournemouth University. (Western Daily Press, 1 Sep 06). How did they find out? Oh, don’t worry, they used a completely foolproof method of obtaining cast iron evidence: they asked 830 fourteen and fifteen-year-olds “if they had vandalised, stolen, had sex, taken drugs or binge drunk in the past week.” That’s almost the best thing about teenagers, I think - the way they always tell adults the absolute truth, and never engage in any form of boasting, exaggerating or piss-taking.
And it doesn't stop at just one generation of carnage. People whose grandparents ate less between the ages of nine and twelve “seemed to live longer.” As the Daily Mirror (5 Jan 06) concluded: “People who live unhealthily today could unknowingly be stacking up problems for future generations.”
Am I going too far in saying that this sounds religious to me, that it reminds me of the “science” used in the US by proponents of Intelligent Design? Am I? Well, perhaps I am, but here’s professor Marcus Pembrey, who lead the DNA research team: “As the Bible says, the sins of the fathers are visited upon his children unto the third and fourth generation.”
(Got you there. I did; admit it.)
Non-smokers who live with smokers, we’re told, are on average 25 per cent more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers who don’t live with smokers. But what chance does that add up to? If (as we are also told) the chance of a non-smoker getting lung cancer is less than one per cent per year, then an increase of 25% doesn’t mean much - a fraction of a small thing is itself a very small thing. In this case, it’s slightly less than 1.25%. There really are other things in your life worth worrying about, for a long time, before you get so far down the list that you arrive at that one.
Remember, your risk (even if these figures are accurate) increases by 25% - not to 25%.
(It’s all relative, of course; if you have ever kept a pet bird, you are “seven times more likely” to develop lung cancer than if you haven’t. [Independent, 18 Nov 88].)
Middlesborough town council has banned smoking in the open air, in places such as parks and bus stops, because “Statistics show that 12 people a week die in Middlesborough as a result of smoking-related illnesses.” A spokesman for Smoke Free North East was delighted: “This is about setting an example and demonstrating that smoking is not the social norm.” (Daily Mirror, 8 Aug 05). That’s honest, at least; the spokesman is not pretending that outdoor smoking can cause “passive smoking.” The benefit of the ban is that it helps to define smoking as a minority perversion, as dissenting behaviour. No-one, presumably, is insane enough to believe that smoking in a park could give a passer-by cancer.
“Passive smoking may not be as dangerous to your friends and work colleagues as doctors initially thought, but your habit can have a devastating effect on your near and dear.” - Dr Mark Porter (Radio Times, date unknown). If one bit of thin ice gives way beneath you - leap to another one! If passive smoking at work doesn’t work, then skate over that and home in on passive smoking at home, instead.
Or just go completely for broke: passive smoking is actually worse than direct smoking, because slipstream smoke “contains all the cancer-causing chemicals that the smoker inhales, but at greater levels because it’s not been filtered by the cigarette tip.” (Daily Mirror, 9 Nov 05).
This laughable rubbish matters because it’s corroding scientific method. Having allowed passive smoking past the doorman, you can’t reasonably exclude astrology, feng-shui, homeopathy, spirit healing or, just a little further into the night, theories of racial superiority. No convincing evidence exists to support any of these nonsenses; there is, rather, good evidence against them. Once you say that that doesn’t matter for one of them, you are saying it doesn’t matter for any of them.
Sir Richard Doll, the pioneer of antismoking science in the middle of the 20th century, apparently said (after studying the subject for some decades) that “I don't mind people smoking in my presence because the risk [of secondary smoking] is tiny. I take greater ones every day in other ways.” (Daily Telegraph, 28 October 05).
There is no good, widely accepted evidence that passive smoking is riskful; the largest study ever, following 118,000 people between 1960 and 1998, which was published in the British Medical Journal in 2003, found that smokers had a “higher than average risk of mortality” (an odd expression; surely everyone's risk of mortality is 100%?) but that people living with smokers were unaffected. (Sunday Telegraph, 19 Feb 06).
Passive smoking is a typical, traditional folk fear; demons being passed mouth to mouth, from one corrupt soul to another, by means of invisible demonic vapours. And in such matters, evidence is secondary.
Passive smoking, said the senior scientist at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in 1990, was “as dangerous as smoking.” (Independent, 7 Aug 90). Evidence of health risks from passive smoking, or Environmental Tobacco Smoke, or secondary smoking, such as it is (and basically, it isn't) comes from statistical estimating - but the concept of ETS is so nebulous as to make framing a useful experiment absolutely impossible, surely? Think of the variables: number of smokers and number of cigarettes passive person exposed to; distance from the smokers (which would presumably vary from day to day and moment to moment); inhalation patterns of passive person and exhalation patterns of smoker; ventilation of room or (more likely) rooms in which exposure took place; genetic inheritance of passive person; diet and habits of passive person ... I could, if I had time, fill three pages with this list. You can do it yourself, if you're bored. Point is, if you can realistically define passive smoking, and devise a consistent way of measuring its effects, then you’re doing better than any of the thousands of paid researchers who have been trying for the last few decades.
I’m not going to waste a lot of space on arguing that passive smoking is an invention, because I think that most intelligent people already know that - whatever they might think about direct smoking. Those who don’t, but would like to find out for themselves, can find out for themselves. Anyone who looks even a little at even a fraction of the evidence will soon lose whatever belief they ever had in the ETS phantom.
The World Health Organisation’s major study of 1998 is a good place to start. (You’ll find it all over the internet and newspaper libraries; I’ve been looking at the Sunday Telegraph report of 8 Mar 98).
The WHO - an organisation with immense resources, which can reasonably be called the world’s largest ever antismoking organisation - set out to prove that there was an epidemic of passive smoking; it ended up not publishing its own report.
The study involved seven European countries, and concentrated on lung cancer. It looked at people who lived with smokers (adults and children), worked with smokers, and both lived and worked with smokers. It concluded that there was no statistical link whatsoever between Environmental Tobacco Smoke and lung cancer - whether in adulthood or childhood. Even worse, the results “could be consistent with passive smoke having a protective effect against lung cancer.”
Just read that last line again, will you? And remember its source. Then have a glass of water, and we’ll carry on.
In the years since that report, the WHO has continued to claim that there is a passive smoking epidemic sweeping the earth. Yes: despite having themselves proved that there isn’t.
Evidence only matters in science. You understand what I’m saying? Evidence doesn't matter in religion, because religion is faith-based.
Two Warwick University researchers, writing in the British Medical Journal, argued that the risk of passive smoking had been greatly exaggerated. They believe some studies are biased in the published findings because “studies with positive results are more likely to be published.” (The Mirror, 11 Feb 00).
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (in the USA), non-smokers aged over 35 who are regularly exposed to passive smoking have a one in 30,000 chance of contracting lung cancer in a given year. As I understand it, that means that your chance is 1 in 30,000 this year, and then 1 in 30,000 again next year: it’s not even 1 in 30,000 per lifetime.
“Eating one pork chop a week is statistically more likely to give you cancer than sitting routinely in a roomful of smokers [...] You are five times more likely to contract lung cancer from your pet budgie than you are from secondary smoke.” (Independent, 17 May 99).
“Passive smoking at home kills an estimated 11,000 people a year and campaigners say it kills more in the workplace.” (Independent, 12 Nov 05). Oh they say that, do they? Then that’s good enough for me - who needs evidence? But what’s this, on the same page of the same issue of the same paper: “Passive smoking is estimated to cause 617 deaths a year in the UK among people exposed at work.” So, just to be ice-clear about this important piece of reliable science: the number of people killed per year from ETS exposure at work is somewhere between an estimated 617 and an estimated more-than-11,000. Truly, this is science at its most convincing. Mark me “reassured.”
The Health Education Council claimed, in 1992 (Daily Mirror, 13 Oct 92) that passive smoking now kills "one in four" as well as causing, annually, 300 cot deaths, 4,000 miscarriages and 400 infant deaths - which doesn't seem to leave many deaths to be shared between road accidents, gunshots, food poisoning and falling down stairs. Of course, the cot deaths and infant deaths have since been quietly dropped from that list, after it was discovered that what was actually killing those poor children was the advice on sleep posture given to their parents by their doctors; given that cot death levels in this country rose dramatically precisely as smoking rates were falling, you might wonder how the Health Education Council ever had the sheer fucking barefaced evil cheek to blame parents for their own bereavement in the first place - but only if you are still making the mistake of thinking of these people as being animated by rationalism rather than by a nauseous mixture of misology, piety and sadism.
A doctor from the Thame Thrombosis and Haemostasis Research Foundation told a reporter (Independent, 16 Nov 04): “I simply do not know where they [the antismoke campaigners] conjure up their statistics.” In particular, the statistics for passive smoking “would not be published or even considered in any other scientific discipline. Deaths from smoking in general have been grossly exaggerated.” A spokesman for ASH admitted, in the same piece, that “A lot of the studies that have been done on passive smoking produce results that are not statistically significant according to conventional analysis.” (By ‘conventional,’ does she mean non-religious? If not conventional, then what other sort of alternative, unconventional analysis is being used to make the figures say what they must say?) One medical researcher told the paper: “Statistically the evidence for the evils of smoking has been grossly distorted. For many people the ideal of a complete end to smoking has become a sort of Holy Grail ... More of us would say this, but it is politically unacceptable to speak the truth about these things.”
(The whole subject of epidemiology makes a fascinating study; I lack the space or the learning to examine it in detail here, but if you find yourself with time to read up on the common errors and dishonesties of statistics, watch for terms like “sequence of action,” “confounding factors,” “susceptibility bias,” “risk factors,” “risk ratios,” and “detection bias.” You’ll also be interested, I think, to learn that diagnoses of death made during post-mortems disagree with doctors’ pre-mortem diagnoses in up to half of all cases, according to various studies. In fact, even post-mortem diagnosis turns out to be far from simple, with different pathologists frequently producing different diagnoses in the same case.)
Healthianity, like all religions, cannot imagine that other people don’t share its priorities, prejudices and values - it feels not so much that its views are the right ones, but that they are the only imaginable ones.
Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I really am trying to avoid exaggerations of my own in writing this squib. For that reason, I must record that many honest and rational scientists do oppose smoking on health grounds. And they are precisely the very ones who are most horrified by the madness of ETS; they see their science being perverted, destroyed, from within.
And yet, passive smoking - not smoking - is the only consistent argument made in favour of smoking bans.
The purpose of the ban on smoking in pubs and clubs is to destroy pubs and clubs. As Orwell almost said, “If there is hope, it lies in the pubs.”
The drinking house, in its various forms, has been at the heart of the radical tradition in Britain, and especially in England, for centuries. Pubs are incubators of formal and informal dissent, where uppity plebs gather to share their grievances, cement their bonds, work their nets, and plot the downfall of their betters. Unions were formed in the backrooms of taverns, political parties of the workers have always met in a room above a pub. Our rulers have never liked pubs, and every generation of them has formulated new rules designed to emasculate them.
If smoking bans really were intended to protect non-smokers from smoke, then it would be simple to design one which achieved that, without preventing smokers from smoking. The once much-boasted-of British virtue of compromise could be deployed to come up with something like this: since non-smokers are the majority, and since many of them dislike being in smoky places, let’s accept that smokeless should be the default position - that in most cases, in most places, non-smokers won’t have to share their air with tobacco smoke. And then, from that initial position, you would look for ways of accommodating those who did wish to smoke - through, for instance, high-tech ventilation systems, and physically separate, unstaffed smoking rooms.
I don’t necessarily advocate the above, I’m just suggesting a starting point for a negotiated settlement. If the aim of the bans was, genuinely, to keep smoke out of the faces of non-smokers, then this is, without doubt, how they would proceed: through discussion and adjustment which, while biased towards the interests and desires of non-smokers, would also try to take into account the interests and desires of others where possible.
This is the law, in my country today: John and Mary jointly own a plumbing business. They have no employees. They are both heavy smokers. They spend a lot of time in their van, in which no other person has ever travelled, or will ever travel. It is illegal for them to smoke in that van, supposedly in case they give each other passive smoking. As I honestly think anyone on earth would have to admit, that would not make sense as part of an attempt to protect non-smokers from smoke. But if the true intent of a ban was to punish and demonise sinners, then it’s perfectly logical.
How much simpler life will be for our masters when there are no pubs or clubs - just smokeless wine bars in which well-to-do young metropolitans can spend the evening pretending not to look at each other.
Even so, because the purpose of a smoking ban is theological, not practical, no ban can ever be enough. When the British government announced that it would make smoking illegal in workplaces (including pubs and other social centres), a spokesman for the antismoking cult ASH urged the authorities to go much further. (Daily Mirror, 28 Jun 06). People should be banned from smoking outside the places where they're banned from smoking in: “There is no need for delay. People do not want to suffer second-hand smoke outside or inside.” Lord Warner, the unelected Health Minister, reassured antismoke campaigners that the Bill included “additional powers” which would allow the government to extend its powers, without further legislation, to include areas which are not “enclosed or substantially enclosed.” In other words - the open air. (Daily Telegraph, 21 June 06). Logically, this must mean that you won’t be able to smoke in your own garden, because what is to stop smoke from your garden drifting next door?
The smoking ban in British pubs was certainly not enough good news for Professor Stanton Glantz (a Californian, unsurprisingly, and the man “who led the US battle against smoking,” according to the Daily Mirror (16 Feb 06). Stan was confident that bans indoors inevitably lead to bans outdoors: “You then get laws banning it within 10 metres of a doorway. People don’t want to walk through a toxic cloud to get to their office.” He was also sure that exemptions for prisons and old age care homes wouldn't last long: “Why should they be poisoned by second-hand smoke? Why should they be asphyxiated?”
Toxic clouds? Asphyxiated?
Patients in Nottingham have been banned from smoking in their own homes during visits by “nurses and other community workers,” to protect the visitors from being harmed by passive smoking (Daily Telegraph, 6 Feb 06). Nurses can refuse to attend a patient who is smoking; the policy is expected to be adopted by other areas. According to a spokesman for the Royal College of Nursing “Recently a nurse went to see a client and the person said, ‘I’m sorry but you smell of smoke and can’t come in.’ The nurse was not a smoker but had made a visit where people were sitting in the room smoking. What are you supposed to do?” Well, for instance - just a suggestion, mind - you could tell the stupid bastard that if they're well enough to refuse a nurse admission to their home because they are so terrified of the evil fluence of the mere aroma of third-hand smoke, then they are clearly well enough not to need a visit, so they can go and fuck themselves right the way up their smelly bottoms with a fucking hockey stick, for instance. That would seem to cover the situation quite nicely.
Health visitors in the same authority (Daily Telegraph, 10 Jan 06), are banned from smoking, alone in their own cars, on their way to appointments.
Very soon it will be made illegal to smoke in your own home, unless you can prove that no child will ever visit the building. This is inevitable - how can you ban smoking in a pub, where adults voluntarily go, and not at home, where children have no choice but to go? And of course that ban will extend to the garden. There’s precedent, though admittedly from a country where everything is illegal: smoking was outlawed in private homes in a town in New South Wales in Australia in 1992 (Daily Mirror, 27 May 92).
It is not enough to ban smoking inside. It is never enough - nothing is ever enough. This is a defining characteristic of religious mania: that one must always go further.
Kingston Hospital became “smoke-free” in 2006. Visitors and staff began smoking in adjacent streets causing complaints from neighbours. So the hospital applied for planning permission to build a smokers’ shelter just inside its perimeter, at a cost of £15,000. Antismoking campaigners were horrified: this would be “inappropriate” they said (which is the worst thing anything can be) and “A better use of the money would be to put it into ‘stop smoking’ projects for staff and patients.” (Daily Telegraph, 15 Nov 06).
The Royal United Hospital in Bath banned smoking in its grounds, as well as its buildings (Western Daily Press, 3 Nov 06), because “Patients, visitors and staff have the right not to be exposed to the effects of cigarette smoke in hospital buildings and in the grounds.” What “effects” might occur in the open air? We are not told. It is not for us to know. It is ineffable.
The Royal Berkshire Ambulance Trust announced that any member of staff seen smoking while in uniform - on their way home, on a break, off duty, any time or place at all - would be sacked. (Daily Mirror, 29 May 06). An NHS Trust in Suffolk banned staff from smoking anywhere, at any time, whether on duty or off, or indeed on holiday, when they are wearing their uniforms or “it is otherwise apparent that they are an employee of the trust.” (Daily Telegraph, 29 Nov 05). If you were a nurse and you lived in a village (as a lot of people do in Suffolk), your fellow villagers would presumably know what you did for a living. That means that it would be “apparent” that you were an employee of the Trust anywhere in the area - so you could be sacked for smoking in your own home (except when alone), or in your front garden, where passers-by might see you, or in your sister’s house, or ...
Of course, smoking bans don’t save any lives. But they do kill people.
Studies on the health implications of social inclusion and “networks of association” (most famously by Robert Puttnam) have found that whether or not you belong to social groups is one of the main factors in determining your age of death. For instance, Puttnam found that if you belong to no social groups, and then join one, your risk of dying during the next year is cut in half.
Social isolation kills people. That is an established, uncontested medical fact.
So if you belong to a pub darts team, or a club quiz team, or you play bingo with your friends once a week, or you’re in an after-work snooker league, you are doing rather more to improve your health than even the most fundamentalist supporter of the passive smoking hypothesis could claim you are damaging it by being exposed to passive smoke.
Going to the pub is good for you - staying at home all the time is not. No-one pretends that there will not be fewer darts team and bingo nights after a ban than before it, as smokers prefer to spend winter evenings sitting on their sofas watching TV rather than getting cold and wet in club car parks; as the overall number of pubs and clubs declines, and as the social nature of remaining pubs changes.
Even the most extreme antismoke zealot could not pretend that the lives saved by protecting people from passive smoking would outweigh the number lost by damaging social networks. Bingo saves lives. Not the lives of the type who vote for smoking bans, obviously, but human lives even so. Having a social life, spending time with friends, getting out of the house, having an interest: there is peer-group reviewed medical research to prove that these things extend your life and improve your health. You get wet when it rains; you’re healthier if you've got a life. Too obvious.
“People who are lonely are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a large US study has suggested.” Loneliness has a “physical impact,” said the professor in charge; an expert in Alzheimer’s agreed: “The study demonstrates a clear link between less social activity and a higher risk of dementia symptoms.” (BBC News website, 6 Feb 07).
In 2006, Rank - a company that owns a lot of bingo halls - closed its head office and got rid of 240 jobs, as it tried to recover from the Scottish ban on smoking in bingo halls. “Scores” of smaller, neighbourhood bingo venues had already closed as result of the ban, Rank admitted; many more would follow. (Independent, 2 Sep 06). Of course, they're only working-class women, and most of them are OAPs, so nobody really gives a toss; but murder is still murder, isn't it?
Pub smoking bans kill people. The old man in the Wiltshire village, decades-widowed, orphaned half a lifetime ago, separated by motorways or seas from his middle-aged, preoccupied children, retired longer than most of us have been alive - but kept alive, and cheerful, by spending every evening in his local, in the same chair for 30 years, with his slow-burning pipe and his all-night pint; his pension won’t buy excess or hedonism but it will just stretch far enough to keep him in that seat, it will buy human companionship - the one thing, after water, which it has been proved that humans must have to remain healthy.
What do you think he’ll do from now on? Stand outside on the heated, planet-killing, covered patio (which a workman’s pub off the tourist trail won’t have, anyway), standing up in a circle of fix-seekers with the youngsters nipping out for a quick drag between frames of pool? Of course not: he’ll stay at home in the evenings. He’ll watch television, like a good, obedient drone should. And he’ll be dead within a twelvemonth. And there are a million of him, nationwide, and they are all going to die.
If this was about protecting health - if passive smoking really existed, and the authorities really wanted to protect people from it - then they wouldn't introduce a blanket ban which they must know is murderous. They would make it a legal requirement for every pub to have separate smoking and non-smoking areas, or even rooms, or even buildings. They would only allow smoking in pubs which install state of the art ventilation systems (which have, incidentally, been proven in clinical trials to remove all supposed risk of smoke carcinogens from building air). But this isn't about science, it’s about religion: it’s about punishing the sinners, punishing those who dare to be old or mad or working-class or unfashionable. It isn't about health: it’s about punishment.
Is it any coincidence that they're trying to abolish old age pensions at the same time as they try to abolish pubs and clubs? They really do want that old man dead - that non-productive unit of production. In the God-fearing, churchgoing, slave days they used euthanasia; but at least they didn’t tell the slaves it was for their own good. (People always think you're joking when you say something like that. And then five years later they say “Why didn't you warn us?” So do me a favour: believe me now, or sod off. I haven't got time for your time-lag outrage.)
A young man, detained in a Bristol hospital, in 2006, for his own good under the Mental Health Act, wanted (perhaps, with what we know now, we might even say needed) a cigarette. There was nowhere in or around the hospital where it was legal to smoke. He was last seen running from the garden; four hours later he was knocked down and killed by a car. Even the most basic tenets of health care must be sacrificed to the religious beliefs of the antismoke cultists. But even by their own arguments, this boy’s death was foreseeable; they tell us smoking is addictive - so how is an addicted smoker, a mental patient under great strain, expected not to smoke?
In the same year, a nurse in Essex was stabbed to death, when she went outside for a fag break. (Daily Mirror, 7 & 12 Apr 06). She was forced, by her employer’s rules, to walk hundreds of yards away from the building, and that is why she died. “Why couldn't they have a smoking room?” her grieving brother asked. Come to that, why couldn't they allow her to stand outside the front door, in the light, safely, to have a quick break, a quick smoke, a moment’s pause from a stressful job? Nobody on this planet sincerely believes that people smoking outside a building could, under any circumstances whatsoever, cause harm to the people inside the building. This is religious hatred, pure and evil. Deaths from hospital smoking bans will become commonplace in the near future.
The ban on “public” smoking (which actually, in large part, is a ban on smoking in private places - pubs and restaurants, for instance - where the public go) cannot be about health: after a ban, more tobacco will be consumed at home, in less “safe” conditions than would apply in properly regulated pubs.
People confuse what they don't like with what they must be protected from - hence the American expression “I don't need this,” which actually means “I don't like this.” Many people don't like tobacco smoke, the way many others don’t like the smell of perfume or fish and chips or curry, or rock and roll. But we have allowed ourselves to fall under the control of people who cannot accept that anything they dislike can simply be a matter of personal taste; they must transform their dislike into active disapproval, and from there to legislation.
Another way we can tell that antismoking is a religion, is that nobody honestly believes in it. People cry inconsolably at funerals, despite their religion telling them that the deceased isn't dead but newly born into eternal happiness, because in their hearts they know it isn't true. If they believed in it, they would cheer at funerals, knowing that their loved one had been spared years of suffering in this life, and that the next time they saw them would be in an infinitely better place.
No-one honestly believes in passive smoking. They go along with it, because that’s what you do with faith systems which are dominant in your society. There is, as far as I know, no Atheist Club in Iran.
The singer Robbie Williams smoked on stage in Australia (Western Daily Press, 16 Dec 06). Two nights running. This is illegal. The state premier of Queensland announced that Williams would be treated like anyone else - he would be fined for his offence. But the Premier himself would pay the fine because Williams “Used it [smoking] as part of his act.”
If a performer smoking on stage really was injurious to the health of the audience, who’d give a toss what the smoker’s motives were? You’d punish the bastard, to make sure neither he nor anyone else did it again. But only if you believed it. And nobody really does.
The British government’s minister of public health herself admitted to a parliamentary committee, discussing the ban on smoking in public places, that 95% of all smoking-related deaths were caused by smoking at home (Daily Telegraph, 7 Jun 06); how this squares with official announcements at the time of the ban that it would “save thousands of lives” is unclear - or rather, it would be unclear if you still believed that saving lives was what all this is about.
I suspect there isn't an epidemiologist in the world who genuinely believes in the existence of passive smoking. Their view is that the end justifies the means: pretending that smoking can kill non-smokers makes it more likely that smoking will be banned, which will save the lives of smokers. Nothing else matters - not science, or honesty, or a sense of proportion. Their view - their religious fervour - is this: smoking is something we can do something about. So, do it! No matter what the cost, no matter what the means, one sinner saved is worth any price.
One of the world leaders of the academic wing of the antismoking movement is supposed to have told a conference in Australia, in 1990, that the importance of the passive smoking scare, apart from helping “people like me to pay mortgages,” was that “it has legitimised the concerns that people have that they don't like cigarette smoke. And that is a strong emotional force that needs to be harnessed and used. We're on a roll and the bastards are on the run.”
The cultivation of fear is essential to anyone who wishes to rule others. Fear of terrorists, communists, asylum seekers, foreigners, gypsies, witches; health fears. If you're not afraid, why would you consent to be governed against your interests?
In the Radio Times (20 Jan 01), Dr Mark Porter advised us on how to avoid heart attacks, and of course the first piece of advice he gave was “Don’t smoke.” He may well be right, for all I know, but a few paragraphs later he gave us some good news/bad news. The good news is that “we are winning the battle against heart disease.” Death rates are tumbling - nearly halved since the 1960s. The bad news is that most of the improvement is in the professional classes, “who tend to live healthier lifestyles and make better use of medical resources.” He says that in the 1970s male manual workers were 25 per cent more likely than male professional workers to die of a heart attack; now it’s “closer to 200 per cent”. Could that be because social inequality has grown during those decades? No, of course not, it’s because of healthier lifestyles amongst professionals.
But this is a bit odd, isn't it? Back in the 70s, didn't a much, much larger percentage of male manual workers smoke than smoke today? It doesn't look as if giving up is doing them much good.
Some employers, especially in the US, hire private detectives to find out which of their staff smoke when at home off-duty - and then they sack them. (Daily Telegraph, 10 Jan 06). A managing director writing in the Daily Telegraph reckons this is going a bit far, from a civil liberties point of view, but she is worried (like so many capitalists) about the amount of working hours lost by employees leaving their slave-stations to smoke outside their non-smoking workplaces. There is growing anger amongst employers about this - but then, the whole idea of time off (tea breaks, lunch breaks, weekends, even retirement) is considered anti-competitive. So instead of private eyes, what does this radical libertarian suggest? She thinks companies should employ a well-known hypnotist, who “will carry out corporate antismoking hypnotism on your staff.” Mass exorcisms! Marvellous! It seems the same hypno-magician also does obesity. Does he do masturbation, I wonder?
A US engineering firm banned anyone from entering its premises who had smoked a cigarette within two hours; delivery men were unable to deliver parcels. (Sunday Telegraph, 22 Feb 99).
In Victorian times, employers insisted that their staff were God-fearing and teetotal - rising workers’ power abolished this, but falling workers’ power has allowed it back, in the form of bosses refusing to employ sinful smokers.
In 1993 it was reported that Royal Liverpool University Hospital had instituted a new healthy living scheme, which would involve refusing to employ smokers, and carrying out random drug tests on all employees - including cleaning staff - to ensure that they had not smoked or drunk alcohol. The same rules would apply to patients and even visitors. Any member of staff (a receptionist, say) found to have had a glass of wine with her lunch would be sacked. (Daily Mirror, 8 Feb 93). I wonder if they stuck to it, given that very soon afterwards drinking red wine became officially necessary for the health of the heart? (White wine isn’t healthy, because it’s drunk mostly by slags and chavs).
Smoking bans are useful camouflage for employers. They make it look as if they're doing something about their employees’ health and safety, and distract attention from real measures which would interfere with profitability. Do you have any idea how many workers are killed on British building sites every year, due to employer negligence? Look it up, if you have a strong stomach. They’re not being killed by cigarettes. (Well-to-do smokers live on average much longer than poor smokers).
Since we know that by far and away the biggest factor in life expectancy is social class, shouldn't wage slips be stamped with a government message: “Warning - Being Poor Can Seriously Damage Your Health And That Of Your Children.” Well, OK, but why not? Rationally, I mean, not emotionally; can you say why not? Since you must now admit that being poor, or even hard-up, is statistically much more likely to shorten your life than smoking is; why shouldn’t the Health Department tell people that truth?
I have dozens of clippings from the mid to late 1990s about cigars being hugely fashionable, especially in New York. Before smoking was banned, many US restaurants allowed the smoking of cigars, but not cigarettes. The newspapers which campaigned against smoking reacted to the celebrity-led cigar craze in a completely different way; no mention of health (or if so, then the cigar-smoking rich were portrayed as glamorous rebels). It was viewed as a fashion story, not a medical story. No disapproval at all; on the contrary, the invitation was to mimic them - we were told about shops to buy cigars and fashionable accessories, and which brands were smoked by which celebrity.
Olive oil, seen for decades as central to the middle-class self-image of sophistication, is good for you; all other forms of fat - chip fat, for instance - are evil, and are being phased out of school dinners. Drinking lager in a pub is bad for you; drinking red wine at a dinner party is good for you.
The father of socialist politician Barbara Castle “believed in the freedom of ideas. When he married my mother he taught her to smoke because it was unladylike.” (Daily Mirror, 6 Oct 95). Now, there’s a rebel.
One of the main political purposes of antismoking - of healthianity, generally; and all religions have a political purpose - is to facilitate the abolition of the welfare state.
Behind the National Health Service, council housing, and all the rest of the Bevanite reforms of the 1940s, was this idea: that we are all responsible for each other. That there is such a thing as society, that nations really do exist, and that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Bad housing was a chief cause of bad health, Bevan believed; he’d seen it at first hand, throughout his childhood. You could see it, in the 1930s, in any town in Britain. Poor people were iller than rich people, because they were poorer than rich people: they had poorer housing, poorer diets - poorer clothes, even, in those days.
Today, in an era of super-profits, such ideas are (as the Church would have it) anathema. Today, illness is not to be alleviated or prevented by alleviating or preventing poverty, but by nagging people about their lifestyles. Illness (and not only dramatic illnesses like cancer, but every manner of infirmity eventually, including old age, accidents at work and hypothermia) are the fault of the sufferer. By establishing this point, you remove the moral and practical justification of socialized medicine and the welfare state. How can you justify taxing the rich to pay for hospitals for the poor, when the poor are only ill because they choose to be?
It’s also worth mentioning that “healthy lifestyle” campaigns provide work for the right sort of people - people who deserve to make money; the NHS by contrast provides work for working class women, immigrants, men with union cards, and other regrettable types. It is no coincidence that healthianity began in the USA, a nation that sometimes seems to exist purely for the purpose of not having a welfare state.
In what his aides billed as a “major speech on healthy lifestyles,” Tony Blair spelled it out quite frankly in 2006: “Our public health problems are not, strictly speaking, public health questions at all. They are questions of individual lifestyle - obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse, diabetes and sexually transmitted disease.” (Morning Star, 27 July 06). A “Number Ten source” added: “It’s about rights and responsibilities and if people are to continue to get healthcare on the NHS free they have a responsibility to look after their lifestyles.” (Daily Mirror, 25 Apr 06). Note that “if” ...
For this reason, the Prime Minister explained, the state should no longer play the major part in safeguarding the health of its citizens. Illness had been caused by poverty, a hundred years ago, but now it was caused by “affluence.” (A dissident Labour MP tried to draw Mr Blair’s attention to a report by Shelter, the housing charity, claiming that 900,000 children in Britain lived in conditions sufficiently overcrowded to severely effect their health, and to a 2003 British Medical Association report which linked poor housing in the 21st century in the fourth richest country on Earth with “heart disease, strokes, respiratory problems, asthma, infectious diseases, mental health problems and depressions, plus injuries.” He tried in vain.)
You might, incidentally, be surprised to see diabetes on the PM’s list. You shouldn't be; the logical outcome of the “your fault” approach is that eventually all diseases and conditions will be entirely the fault of the sufferer. First lung cancer, then heart disease, then diabetes ... why not? Multiple sclerosis next, or arthritis, or schizophrenia.
The definition of “cause of death” is always political; if a man has his head chopped off by a state executioner, his death certificate might list the cause of death as loss of blood, or heart stoppage, or shock, or it might list “autocracy.” Or perhaps “disobedience.” In Guandong province, in south China, a textile worker’s cause of death was officially listed as excessive overtime working. This suited the politics of the moment, as elements in the Chinese leadership were concerned with a growing trend towards super-exploitation by foreign-run enterprises. I daresay the poor textile worker smoked - most people do in China; I have no doubt, if so, that his death would have been attributed in Britain to smoking, rather than to capitalism.
“Wellness coaches” (a US invention, naturally), are becoming more common in Britain, strongly supported by the government. It’s not hard to see why. A leading American expert on health coaching explains that: “Well over 50 per cent of diseases and illnesses, and 90 per cent of injuries are caused by the risky behaviour choices we make. Most people know what they need to do to be healthy and the big question is ‘why don’t they do it?’.” (Daily Telegraph, 6 March 06). The big answer seems to be: because they are wilful and abideth not the word of the Lord.
“If low wages are admitted to be the cause of ill health, then a good trade union is a better doctor than the half-trained mystic at the surgery.” - Nye Bevan, Tribune, 1937.
Conservative historian Niall Ferguson wondered why people in poor countries tend to die younger than people in rich countries; particularly, he wondered why life expectancy in Russia had fallen gigantically following the change from socialism to capitalism. Not wondering for very long, he explained that it was because poor people smoke too much, drink too much and eat too much high-cholesterol food. He proposed that such people, who “are deliberately opting for ill health,” should be referred to collectively not as the Third World but as “the Thick World.” (Sunday Telegraph, 22 Jan 06).
Not being a conservative, I prefer facts. “Around the world, 300 million people live on less than 50 pence a day, 13 million children do not go to primary school and almost half of all children under five are malnourished.” (Co-operative News, 6 Feb 07). “The International Labour Organisation [a United Nations agency] estimates that 126 million children aged five to 14 work in hazardous conditions worldwide.” (Co-operative News, 20 Feb 07).
When Lord Turner, commissioned by the British government to propose plans for pension reform, suggested raising the retirement age, some mild critics pointed out that this would penalise those with shorter life expectancies - which is to say, male manual workers. Turner had a simple answer to that: a total ban on smoking in public places. “If you look at the mortality of different socio-economic classes, it is all related to smoking.” (Sunday Telegraph, 4 Dec 05). Not some, or even most, but all: sometimes their blatancy is their best camouflage. What Turner - himself a well-to-do man - seems to mean is that workers are mere units of production, not human beings, just engines of profit. You can work them longer by denying them the financial possibility of stopping work - and you can work them even longer if you stop them from smoking. Maintain your machinery; in hard trading conditions, your profits may depend on it.
The life-expectancy gap between men and women is closing rapidly. Women still live much longer than men, and both are living longer on average every year, but the gap between them is closing. The official reason for this is that more women smoke, and fewer men smoke. But there’s another possible reason: more women work, for more hours and for more years. Capitalism is now in a stage of ultra-exploitation. Prices and wages (and therefore demand and investment) are falling; the only way to maintain profits is to get more productivity out of each “labour unit” - and the only way to do that without investment in new machinery, research and development (which erodes short-term profits) is to work them longer hours.
“The biggest saving from a total ban [of smoking other than at home] would be increased productivity from workers not going on fag breaks, the Royal College of Physicians says.” (Daily Mirror, 12 Jul 05). Ah! Now we’re getting there ... So, is the main priority of the Royal College of Physicians maximising the profits of capitalists through maximising the productivity of labour units?
In the 1970s, when trade unions were relatively strong in Britain, the employer paid one living wage and got one worker - the man. (That’s a generalisation, obviously, and one for which I apologise to all the women in my own family). Today, he still pays one living wage - but now, he pays it for two workers; the man and the woman. Both halves of a couple have to work in order to make their mortgage repayments.
A study published in the British Medical Journal found that workplace stress (defined as having the heaviest workload, but little control) was just as bad for women’s health as was smoking. (Times, 26 May 00). Full-time working women are significantly more likely to suffer from serious illnesses than women who stay at home full or part-time. (Sunday People, 12 Jul 98).
Pregnant women who work more than 32 hours a week do as much harm to their unborn babies as those who smoke, according to a study conducted in Amsterdam. (Sunday Telegraph, 28 May 06). Ideally, according to this study, mothers-to-be shouldn't work more than 24 hours a week; stress increases the level of a hormone called cortisol, which can cross the placenta and slow the foetus’s growth. In the UK, the well-named Department of Trade and Industry was quick to squash such communistic heresy: “As women work in many different roles,” said a spokesman, “a one-size fits all provision in relation to working hours would not be effective.” Effective, in our world today, is just one of many euphemisms for profitable.
It is pretty bloody obvious why women are beginning to die at a male age - because they are leading a male working life. “They die because they choose to smoke” is a smokescreen.
Life expectancy for men in Glasgow is just 69; in some inner-city areas, 64. Research by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health suggests that the high levels of chronic illness might be linked to “a heightened response to stress which in turn results from feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.” (Morning Star, 8 Dec 05).
Free-trade reforms, imposed on India by Western governments, have led to an “epidemic of suicide,” according to Christian Aid, “on a scale that is surely unique in modern times.” (Independent, 16 May 05). More than 4,000 farmers had killed themselves in one state alone, as the “reforms” impoverished them beyond endurance. Still, if you look into it deeply enough, I’m sure you’ll find it was really caused by passive smoking in the parks.
“Presenteeism” - going into work when you're ill, even if only with a cold - can “hasten death,” by leading to the onset of coronary heart disease, according to a 10-year study of 10,000 workers carried out by University College London (Morning Star, 30 Nov 04). Research suggests that 9 out of 10 British office workers no longer have a lunch break away from their desks. (Morning Star, 10 Jan 07).
“Shift working is as bad for you as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day.” (Independent, 6 Apr 04). So, why isn’t the government spending millions of pounds on TV ads to warn people of this?
The Chief Medical Officer produced a top ten tips for better health; needless to say the number one was “Don’t smoke.” The Centre for International Poverty Research at Bristol University came up with a rather more realistic, scientific, evidence-based version. Their number one was “Don’t be poor. And if you are poor, then try not to be poor for too long.” The second items on each list were, respectively:
- Follow a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Don’t live in a deprived area. If you do, move.
(See both lists in full at www.bris.ac.uk/poverty/health%20inequalities.html).
Involuntary unemployment is even worse than working: long term unemployment leads to a shorter life, and a higher incidence of mental illness, and unemployed men are almost twice as likely to commit suicide as men in work. (Sunday People, 12 Jul 98). And since men are pretty likely to commit suicide anyway, in work or otherwise, that makes this statistic rather more important than trivial nonsense about fractions of a less than one per cent chance of contracting lung cancer.
“Children from the poorest families are five times more likely to die in an accident than those from rich ones.” (People, 6 Jul 97).
According to research by a company advising the British government’s Health and Safety Executive, young workers are suffering serious health consequences because of the “hours of inactivity” caused by the time “they spend at their desk and watching TV at home.” All workers are at risk, but the young are most effected because they have grown up in a “keyboard culture” and are the least likely to take breaks. (Western Daily Press, 23 Nov 06). Sounds like the occasional smoke break would do them good, doesn't it?
Poor people live shorter lives than well-off people partly because stress makes their cells age faster, according to research at St Thomas’s in London. (Daily Telegraph, 20 Jul 06). This “increased rate of molecular damage” is so dramatic and significant that even having a spouse from a higher social class could “add years to an individual’s life span.” Being poor is directly, causally associated with cardiovascular, respiratory, rheumatic and psychiatric diseases, low birth weight and infant mortality. This study suggests that low socio-economic status (SES, as epidemiologists call it) not only effects your chance of having age-related diseases, but also accelerates the ageing process itself.
Researchers from the Health Promotion Research Trust were unusually explicit about the results of their research into the class basis of ill-health and longevity: “The survey shows that the health choices people make are not as important as their social circumstances.” (Independent, 19 Jan 91).
But never mind all that - let’s just force them to stop smoking. That’ll make them even more stressed, and then they’ll die even younger, and then we won’t have to pay their old age pensions, the scrounging bastards.
Many people make money out of healthism, and whilst probably not fundamental to the process, this factor should never be underestimated.
The amount of money spent on cosmetic surgery in Britain in 2006 was £539 million; the British Association of Plastic Surgeons says 92% of it customers are women. A survey of girls in 2004 found that 67% of them believe themselves to be overweight, while 19% were overweight according to official definitions. (Morning Star, 16 Jan 07).
Not only plastic surgeons cash in on health hysteria: the diet industry, the antismoking and give-up-smoking industries, the health and beauty industry, the slimming industry and the health food industry are between them worth billions; women’s magazines survive almost entirely on health scares; newspapers, TV and advertising take a very large proportion of their income from it. These are clear-cut cases of profiteering, without getting into the more complicated areas of the hundreds of thousands of counsellors, civil servants, quango employees, employees of publicly-funded private organisations, employees of charities, advisers, policy-makers, ban enforcers and so on.
A great many people owe their status and livelihoods to healthism; it would perhaps be wrong to call them a “new class” as such, in the Marxist sense, but they certainly have sufficient numbers and cohesion (and, incidentally, transnationalism) to recognise and defend their common interests. You’ll remember Upton Sinclair’s famous principle: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
In the US, under pressure from the pharmaceutical companies, the government reduced the official benchmark for healthy levels of blood pressure and cholesterol - so more people are defined as having a medical problem, and thus become customers (Morning Star, 20 Jan 05). The US pharmaceutical companies spend twice as much on marketing as they do on research.
Capitalists who don’t specifically make money from health are happy to jump aboard opportunistically if not always very subtly; a full page ad in a women’s magazine for a “low-fat” brand of cheese showed a mountain of grated cheese dwarfing a cheese-grater. The slogan was: “Less fat. So eat more.” There were no other words.
Smoking is not only a comfort for the comfortless, or those in need of comforting - which is most people most of the time, and especially those most people who are not well-to-do; though if solace was the herbal medicine's only function it would be enough to justify its existence - it is also an engine of and a token of fellowship.
To pass around a packet, to ask for or to offer a light, to smoke together; these are small, everyday pieces of human solidarity. There is nothing in human life more important or valuable than fellowship between humans - though solace runs it a good second.
The American Indians consciously and explicitly used smoking for this purpose, and during what history inaccurately calls the English Civil War, the radical groups - those campaigning for universal suffrage, the abolition of private property, annual parliaments and so on - were often very much in favour of smoking, for its spiritual and communal values. The new ruling class - the nascent capitalist party of Puritans, and the Cromwellians, who halted the revolution and instigated a military dictatorship in its place - were enthusiastically opposed to tobacco, in all its forms, as they were also opposed to dancing and Christmas and, almost certainly, smiling.
The history of the Left - of working-class organisations, of socialists and trades unionists and advocates of democracy and equality and of reformers and rebels and subversives generally - is a smoky history.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, socialist and labour leaders of Keir Hardie’s generation tended to be teetotal. They had several good reasons for this, and one bad one. The bad one first: the non-conformist religious background which many of them shared, which disapproved of pleasure. The good reasons, whether or not we agree with them: they held that strong drink was a trap set up by the masters to keep the workers in their place through befuddlement, to prevent them organising and taking control of the world (by keeping them merry and lethargic), and a way of intercepting the working man on his way home from work, with his wages newly in his pocket, and taking those wages back from him before he even reached his hovel. They had also a feminist reason: male drunkenness, they argued, was a key factor in female enslavement: it kept women poor, it kept them in drudgery, it kept them from any opportunity of realising their potentials. Often it turned their men folk - who should have been their equal and loving partners in revolution and in life - into feared, fist-whirling ogres.
So they didn't drink, the workers’ tribunes, as an example to others. Instead they smoked. Like chimneys, most of them! Because, of course, smoking is completely harmless to others - unlike drink, which can damage people other than the drinker, through prompting violence, indolence, pauperism and so on. Beer has played a good part in the story of democratic advance in these islands, but it lags behind tea and tobacco.
It is sometimes said, and invariably implied, in every report I’ve ever read on the class differences of smoking (blatantly so in US reports, rather more mealy-mouthedly in the UK) that the reason working-class people smoke more than graduates is because they are more ignorant or less educated. That’s why they have to be compelled to conform, because educating them has proven to be a lost cause. In fact, of course, the lower you are down the chain the more stress you have and that’s why you smoke more. That, and as a way of sticking two fingers up to the posh.
The Association for International Cancer Research warned that there would be a “surge” in the disease in the next fifteen years, if current trends continued. There could be a worldwide increase of up to 50%. (Morning Star, 4 Feb 06). The AICR said that tobacco was “public enemy number one,” with diet, poverty and infections also “major factors.” Tobacco, you’ll note, is public enemy number one - not poverty. Not lack of medicines, or doctors or nurses or hospitals, or buses to get to the doctors.
Researchers from the universities of Nottingham and York found that average life expectancy is lowest in wealthy countries where there is a big divide between rich and poor (Morning Star, 24 Feb 06). They're saying, I think, that it’s not absolute poverty which counts, but relative poverty: that is, health is class-based, in rich countries as much as in poor ones. A series of vast studies in western industrialised nations has shown that “in the advanced countries, where starvation no longer occurs, the biggest killer is social stress” which is caused by “relative poverty” - that is, inequality between rich and poor. (Independent, 26 Dec 03). If you’re waiting for your government to admit this, and stop arseing about with punitive and pointless smoking bans, history suggests you may have a long wait.
The British government in 1957 prevented the Medical Research Council from publishing a statement saying that, although smoking was a significant cause of lung cancer, up to 30% of cases might be caused by air pollution. The MRC, under pressure from the Tory government, changed its statement to say that the role of pollution was “relatively minor in comparison with cigarette smoking.” They lied, in other words, under orders from big business’s representatives in parliament. (Independent, 9 Dec 02).
The medical historian (a professor at the legendary London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) who discovered these long-hidden documents spoke for us all, I think, when she said that “the readiness of supposedly independent scientists to emphasise smoking over air pollution represented a wider shift away from the concept of health related to an individual’s environment and workplace towards one focused on that individual’s responsibility for his or her health as epitomised by smoking.”
So we have documentary proof that the antismoking scapegoating conspiracy abandoned - set out indeed to destroy - scientific objectivity at least half a century ago. Are you wholly confident that such a thing could happen then, but can’t happen now? You really trust the current generation of political leaders that much?
Science uses trial and error, which some of its practitioners prefer to call experimentation, to improve knowledge. Forecasts of death based on statistics are at the very softest end of science; they cannot be fully tested scientifically. But they can be used as hobgoblins, to scare and cow a population; the same way you could use fear of imaginary worldwide terrorist brotherhoods led by evil masterminds who never quite stand trial.
A statistic you don’t often see (except here, where I am repeating it at every opportunity) is this one: according to the antismokers’ own figures, more than 99.98% of all smokers do not get lung cancer. (Fat by Rob Grant, Gollancz 2006). If smoking causes lung cancer, wouldn’t you expect at least half a percent of all smokers to get the disease?
At the very least, you would expect - I think it’s fair to say, you’d bloody well demand - that if lung cancer is caused by smoking, if “Nine out of 10 people who get lung cancer can blame it on smoking” (BBC News website, 2 May 01), then the countries which smoke the most would get the most lung cancer. Or, if not even that, then at the absolute sodding least, the countries that get the most lung cancer smoke the most, or have the most smokers.
In fact, pretty much the opposite is true.
According to antismoking group Cancer Research UK, on their website http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerstats/geographic/cancerineu/commoncancers, the EU’s lowest “male lung cancer incidence and mortality rates” are in Sweden and Portugal; for women, it’s Spain, Portugal and Malta. Yet Spain and Portugal both have very high levels of smoking.
If “healthy lifestyles” confer real benefits, why is it that life expectancy is much higher in, for instance, Japan, Spain and Greece than in the UK or USA - despite the latter two countries containing a lower proportion of smokers? Shouldn’t the low-smoking countries be at the bottom of the life expectancy tables, instead of at the top?
The Japanese are the second heaviest smokers in the world, after Greece (as far as I can tell, this seems to be a measure of both widespreadness and of average per capita consumption) [www.taima.org/en/nicotine.htm#wsj], yet Japan has one of the lowest rates of lung cancer on the planet earth. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1309091.stm).
(Is this relevant? I don’t know, see what you think: the Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world, and they are the richest people in the world. There aren't that many dull, automaton jobs in Japan; they have real automata to do them. Being bored can shorten your life, research has suggested.)
It’s no good saying the exception tests the rule, because the thing about science is that consistent, widespread and repeated exceptions change rules: that’s how science works. That’s why it works. If some of the smokiest nations have some of the lowest lung cancer rates, then the whole idea that smoking “causes” lung cancer immediately collapses into a puddle of superstitious sludge. If you don’t accept that, then you don’t accept science. You are dismissing a millennium of method and progress, and you are opting to return to the pre-Enlightenment days of priests and witches.
Think about it, just for a moment: if the people who smoke the most get the least lung cancer, then how can anyone continue to believe that there is a simple relationship between smoking and lung cancer? They can’t, if they understand anything at all. They can only pretend to, for religious reasons. Another sect might just as well say that smoking prevents lung cancer, and on the actually existing evidence they would be just as right - or, in fact, righter. Despite being obviously wrong. My god’s bigger than your god and he’s got hairier balls.
British children are the unhealthiest in the world according to some nonsense report, all over the papers in February 2007 (but it’s the same nonsense that all of the antismoking evidence is built on; wriggle how you like, you can’t get away from that. If you accept the validity of one, you are required by the laws of logic to accept the other). So if parental smoking is the main cause of childhood chronic illness, how come the unhealthiest children in the world don’t live in the heaviest smoking countries? There can only be one answer to that within the laws of logic: childhood illnesses are not chiefly caused by parental smoking. Wriggle all you want but if you accept the rules of logic, and you believe in this kind of evidence, then that’s the only place you can end up.
Numbers which don’t fit the doctrine must simply be ignored, the way the early church fathers excised bits of their doctrine and history which they no longer needed.
There is no international correlation between smoking rates and rates of smoking-related diseases. There just isn’t. Which to this layman suggests that smoking-related diseases may not be smoking-related. Doesn't it?
Look, I know this is disturbing, and I don’t want to lose you, so could we agree on a compromise? Can we agree to agree that, at the very least, the link between longevity and smoking can’t be as simplistic as is claimed by the various antismoking scriptures quoted in this pamphlet?
English people are much healthier than US people, according to a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Daily Telegraph, 2 May 06). Rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and lung cancer (yes, lung cancer) among middle-aged people in the US were roughly twice as high as amongst their English (sic) counterparts. Furthermore, the English were less likely to report “a wide array” of other diseases. The rates of heart disease and diabetes amongst the best-paid and best-educated Americans were similar to those at the bottom of the scale in England.
Smoking rates in the two countries are “similar,” while excessive alcohol intake was actually more common in England. (Obesity was higher in the US).
But never mind all that, which is beyond the scope of this modest scrawl; perhaps there’s an undiscovered genetic difference between Britons and Portuguese, and English and USians, or perhaps there’s something else which no-one has yet taken into account, but one way or another, the statistical evidence for Britain, at any rate, seems pretty clear: a lot more smokers than non-smokers get lung cancer. But the proportion is still tiny.
Because of the fashion, over the last half century, for epidemiological research which shows statistical links between illnesses and practices or characteristics (rather than demonstrating the actual mechanisms by which a habit might cause an illness, which is much harder work and far less profitable in the short term), researchers only have to show a small blip in the numbers in order to get their report published. (Publishing, it goes without saying, is essential to their careers; if they don’t publish, they don’t eat).
So you take a hundred people who wear hearing aids, and a hundred people who don’t, and you find that three of the non-wearers have haemorrhoids, while only one of the wearers has. You publish this in an academic paper, and a few weeks later a non-academic paper (usually a broadsheet with a mostly female readership) carries the headline “Piles Caused By Not Wearing Hearing Aids.”
Because the standard of - well, not proof, as such, but the standard of suggestion, is so low, another research group will take another two hundred mixed hearing-aid wearers and non-wearers and test their cholesterol. A few weeks later, the same newspaper announces “Cholesterol Linked To Hearing Aids.”
It is a normal capitalist process: the commodification of scare. And that is why, if you read the health pages or watch the TV headlines over a period of a few months, you will be told that coffee is bad for you, coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you, coffee is good for you ...
You might as well toss a coin. That, after all, is pretty much what the epidemiologists do with their small samples and their even smaller statistics of risk.
(The day I wrote that passage, I was wondering if I could find an example to back it up, but I couldn't face wading through my huge cardboard box of unfiled clippings. And then I happened to glance at the front page of that day’s Daily Telegraph (9 Jan 07), and saw this: a German study into the cardiovascular health benefits of drinking tea has found that those benefits are neutralised if the tea is drunk with milk. The caseins are blocked by the catechins, as you probably guessed. The study, published in the European Heart Journal, involved sixteen women.
That’s 16; one-six. It was on the front page.
People say you couldn't make it up, but let’s face it - you could, couldn't you?
There’s an old American joke, which I’m sure you’ve heard, and won’t mind hearing again: Why are Methodists opposed to sex? Because they fear it could lead to dancing.
John Harvey Kellogg - a Michigan medical doctor, religious fanatic and health campaigner and the inventor of cornflakes - campaigned long and hard (if you’ll pardon the expression) against sex in all forms, particularly masturbation. In his seminal work (sorry), Treatment for self-abuse and its effects (1888) he wrote: “A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.”
Yes, I’ll bet it is. Circumcision of boys (still widely practiced for bogus “medical” reasons in the USA, but not in any First World country) was considered “undoubtedly the physician's closest friend and ally.” Have a quick fiddle with your search engine, and you’ll find many more 19th and early 20th century examples of this kind of thing, from many countries including Britain. Ministers of religion made it clear that masturbation was a sin, and doctors established that it was bad for the health; this is the old one-two that we have always seen, and continue to see now. Throughout history, sins have always been bad for you - according, that is, to the medical orthodoxy of the day. For masturbation a hundred years ago, read smoking and obesity today.
In the Victorian era, masturbation was known for an absolute medical fact to cause insanity, epilepsy, headaches, nosebleeds, asthma, all forms of heart disease and disorder, memory loss, rashes, body odours, hysteria, lack of concentration, homosexuality, impotence, gonorrhoea, epilepsy, blurred vision, various nervous disorders, all types of gout and rheumatism, a weakening of the organs, blood in the urine, memory loss, tuberculosis or consumption, paralysis, loss of sight and hearing, carelessness, listlessness, negligence, suicide, lesions of the heart, melancholia, hysteria, death, disturbance of appetite, fatigue, warts - and cancer.
There are many more, but if I list them all we’ll never get any tea tonight.
Cures for masturbation were sold on Oxford Street; the nicotine patches and herbal anti-craving supplements of their day - then as now, little more than charms to ward off evil.
According to a 1999 antismoking book, written by a psychologist, smoking can cause: pot belly, spindly legs, cellulite, wrinkles, lines around the mouth and eyes, an increase - sorry, a “possible” increase - in facial and body hair, and a dull complexion. (Independent, 5 Aug 99). To be fair, I’ve never seen epilepsy blamed on smoking. Hold on, though - let’s just check ...
... good lord! Type “epilepsy + smoking” into a search engine. I should have known; they’d hardly let that one pass them by, would they?
These days it’s smoking cannabis that causes insanity, rather than smoking tobacco - but give them time, give them time.
By the way, it’s interesting to note asthma in that list. The Daily Mirror (20 Apr 06) explained that asthma was “Another modern-day phenomena [sic]. The disease was rare among Victorian children. But in the past 30 years, rates have soared. The increase in allergies and exposure to cigarette smoke are thought to be key factors.” Really? Given that the last 30 years have seen the sharpest fall in smoking rates ever recorded in this country? “Childhood asthma has increased six-fold in the last 25 years,” (Daily Mirror, 2 Dec 04) - while smoking has declined. But a spokesman for ASH said (Morning Star, 23 Aug 04): “We already know that smoking is the trigger for asthma. It is not a case of having to wait for more evidence.” More evidence? Here’s the evidence: in the days when most people smoked, asthma was rare. Today, it’s widespread and smoking isn’t. Does that mean that asthma is caused by people not smoking? I doubt it - but then, I’m not religious. I’m not required to believe absurd things without evidence.
There have always been what are called “moral panics.” Witchcraft is only the most famous of history’s examples; the line stretching from there to smoking passes through, for instance, short hair in women, which in the 1920s was proven to lead to baldness, while a hectic social life (again, for young women) was one of the main causes of tuberculosis. Sexual appetite in women has been shown for certain, and repeatedly through the centuries, to be the main cause of female insanity. (If a short-haired woman in a flapper dress tries to chat you up at a party tonight, run like shit.)
Early 20th century doctors pointed out that one should never be fooled by the lack of symptoms from masturbation: “The victim is often very near death before you realize that he has done himself harm.” In our time, the same profession says the same thing about smoking: it is addictive even if you don’t smoke (no, seriously - we’re coming to that); even though it seems to do you no harm now, when you die in old age you will have died of smoking. And, of course, it dooms your yet-to-be conceived children.
In the 18th century, masturbation itself was declared a disease - in precisely the same way that antismokers today speak of “an epidemic of smoking,” as if the act itself were an illness. (Or “tobacco epidemic,” as health minister Tessa Jowell put it, quoted in The Mirror, 7 Jul 97).
Of course, it’s not long since homosexuality was classified as a disease; indeed, that word was invented (in 1869) as the name - not of an act or inclination - but of a psychiatric illness. Some historians have suggested that widespread, official persecution of minorities - homosexuals, Jews, witches and so on - really got going in western Europe only after the Black Death had killed a third of the population; for the first time, perhaps, educated people, including legislators, began to take seriously the idea that epidemics resulted from ignoring God’s will, or allowing others to do so unpunished.
In the 1990s, US President Bill Clinton fired his Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, for describing masturbation as a normal activity. She was talking about ways of avoiding AIDS at the time. Clinton explained that her views conflicted “with administration policy and my own convictions.” (www.nybooks.com/articles/17015). So the adulterer and war criminal Clinton became quite possibly the first US President to actually tell a press conference that his government was formally opposed to wanking. (He is, needless to say, also a notorious antismoker and god-botherer. His administration declared nicotine an addictive drug, with Clinton himself using Biblical language to damn the “deadly temptations of tobacco.” [Independent, 11 Aug 95].).
In the early days of the novel, one reason that it was considered dangerous for girls and young women to read fiction was that this would almost certainly lead to them masturbating - and then of course, they'd get ill and die. Or worse: demand the vote.
No wonder that Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, has written that for Christian thinkers of earlier ages masturbation was “what smoking or obesity are for us.”
(Some of the sources for the above: Masturbation: the history of a great terror by Jean Stengers et al [Palgrave Macmillan, 2001]; Radio Times, 20 Jan 01; www.nybooks.com/articles/17015; http://olin.msu.edu/infopage.php?id=96; http://davisiaj.com/content/view/14/27/index2.php?option=com_rss&feed=RSS2.0&no_html=1; www.uncg.edu/ced/bbandb/index_files/Page838.htm; www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20041110/health/health5.html; www.jackinworld.com/library/articles/history.html; www.cirp.org/pages/whycirc.html).
It is necessary for healthianity to explain why, when comparatively few people smoke these days, rates of smoking-related diseases don’t seem to decrease. Well, that’s simply done. After smoking, our masters find something else: obesity. A full scale demolition of the obesity fantasy is beyond the scope of this modest pamphlet (though I can’t resist noting that, under current official definitions, a large majority of all professional rugby players are clinically obese). Anyone who knows anything of the history of moral panics could write a rough outline of the script, anyway; we’ve seen how antismoking escalated, and we will see exactly the same process with obesity: disgusting flabby unwashed working-class scum with bad haircuts are spreading disease by eating too much, and by enjoying it too much. At best they are ignorant, at worst they are evil and should be liquidated as a class.
The point is this: there has been, in the UK, a massive reduction in smoking, but there has not been a massive reduction in “smoking-related diseases”. That’s why we get this:
Obesity could cause 12,000 new cancers per annum in Britain by 2010. Fatness is the cause of nearly four per cent of all cancers; this percentage will soar in the near future, due to the “obesity epidemic.” Cancer Research UK’s epidemiologist explains that some breast and womb cancers are “almost certainly” caused by hormones produced by fatty tissue, while admitting that “We are less sure of the precise mechanisms in other obesity related cancers.” Never mind that minor scientific detail: “We can confidently predict that the number of these cases will increase unless the rise in obesity in Britain can be reversed.” (The Mirror, 7 Jul 97).
You stopped smoking. You got fat. You're going to die, and it’s your fault, you stinking undermensch!
(Not so simple to explain why the 20th century generations who almost all smoked, almost all the time, and during whose lifetimes smoking reached its peak of popularity, were the longest-lived and healthiest in history; but never mind - let’s just pretend it didn’t happen: “The horrific effects of smoking left a terrible mark on the post-war generation.” [Western Daily Press, 1 Jan 07].).
“It is bad for your blood pressure, knocks years off your life and is a strain on your heart. Now scientists have discovered that gaining weight lowers your intelligence.” (Sunday Telegraph, 15 Oct 06). Yes, researchers have proved that the more weight you put on, the stupider you become. The clinical director of the National Obesity Forum (wonder what wage he’s on? Better than yours, that’s what) was very excited at the news: “It goes to show obesity affects every single organ in the human body,” he crowed. (It does no such thing, even if you take it at face value; how does this show that obesity effects your liver?).
This is clearly insane - absolutely, utterly barking mad. As mad as any mad medical fad indulged in by our ancestors, at least as insane as the belief that infections were spread by devils. They just don’t know when to stop, do they? Of course, if fat people can be proven to be stupider than thin people - Peter Ustinov, for instance, was stupider than Kate Moss - then should they really be allowed to vote? And since working-class people are on average fatter than upper-class people, well ... interesting possibilities for the modernisation of democracy ...
There is significant evidence to suggest that the fat live longer than the thin. A paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Independent, 21 Jun 05) written by a researcher at the legendary CDC - the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta - found that “it is still far from certain whether there is any measurable mortality toll at all among overweight and obese Americans as a group,” and furthermore that “even severe obesity failed to show up as a statistically significant mortality risk.”
On the other hand, fat bastards do look trashy, don't they? So, basically, they deserve to be punished.
If you care to look into the obesity myth, in greater depth than I am doing here, I guarantee your jaw will drop with astonishment. I don't say that the anti-obesity lobby is any more right than the pro; I do say (and, perhaps slightly more impressively, a stack of prestigious, peer-reviewed studies taller than you and me put together also says) that the existence of obesity as a widespread medical condition is simply not a fact. It’s barely even a hypothesis.
The other problem with obesity is that a lot of people are never going to be obese, no matter how broad you make the definition. The biggest net in the world will never catch all the fish. So what to do about people of a normal weight? Well, this should help: scientists have discovered that “up to four out of 10 people could be a Tofi - thin outside, fat inside.” So that even though you are actually thin - you’re really fat. A special clever machine costing millions is able to reveal this unto the priesthood; that unseen fat that’s inside, invisible fat, is going to kill you even though you seem to be perfectly proportioned and healthy. The answer is exercise, which “burns” your internal fat: “Lifestyle changes have to include physical activity.” The crucial point was well made by a spokesman for the Medical Research Council team which had made this breakthrough: “The important message is that people shouldn't be happy just because they look thin.”
Shouldn't be happy: what a superbly telling choice of words. What an important message, indeed.
Britain’s Public Health Minister announced in 2006 that pregnant teenagers were “deliberately smoking” in order to have smaller babies, so as to make labour less painful. (Daily Telegraph, 4 Oct 06). She knows this because “she had heard about the issue anecdotally from health professionals and young women she had met.” Evil bitches! Poisoning their own babies for their own wicked gain!
Have you ever read anything about medieval witchcraft trials? If you do, you’ll find that this type of accusation (concerning perversions of maternal instinct, and based, always, on anecdotal evidence) was very common. A leading NHS consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist told reporters that she had never heard of such a thing in her 14-year career, and that it reminded her of stories from an earlier age when teenage mothers got pregnant in order to get a better council flat).
Officially, smoking is the main cause of mouth cancer. In the decade to 2001, the number of cases increased by a quarter - during a decade which had seen a decline in smoking. Problem? Not at all - Cancer Research UK explained (Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov 05) that the increase in mouth cancers was caused by binge drinking (which is what drinking is called when working-class people do it, especially if they’re female). For that reason, anti-cancer campaigners warned against relaxing the licensing laws.
Everything is medicalised, in a culture based on fear: “One in every six is turning into a shopping addict,” says a report, which defines addicts as those who “shop at every opportunity, even if they have nothing to buy.” (Morning Star, 18 Jul 94). This used to be called window shopping, and it was considered an enjoyable, harmless way to pass the time. Now it’s a disease - an addiction.
Everything that gives pleasure is sinful. Everything - if they haven't got round to your pleasure yet, be patient.
“Obesity is more damaging to health than smoking, heavy drinking or poverty, a Government agency said yesterday.” (Daily Telegraph, 13 Dec 06). It'll have changed by now, probably twenty times, but did you know that in 1998 the British government’s recommended daily intake of fibre for every adult every day was the equivalent of “10 slices of wholemeal bread, or 18 bananas, or 14 bowls of brown rice, or four jacket potatoes”? (Daily Telegraph, 17 Mar 98). Good luck with that, then.
Today, drinking tea is very good for you. In fact, drinking just one cup a day can “almost half the risk of heart disease, doctors said yesterday.” (The Mirror, 9 Jul 99). But it wasn't always so. In the 18th century, experts found that tea rendered the stomach “incapable of performing the offices of Digestion,” and in the 19th century it was known that excessive tea drinking was fatal, and that suburban tea houses themselves were full of “loose women and with boys whose morals are depraved.” (London the biography by Peter Ackroyd).
Can obesity be blamed on smoking? Yes! Hurrah! It can! A study at Bristol University found that “Men who smoked when young had sons who were fatter than average by the age of nine.” (Daily Telegraph, 9 Jun 06).
The deputy health minister of Scotland, supporting the pub smoking ban, said: “One in four of all deaths in Scotland is directly attributable to smoking.” (Independent, 16 Nov 04). That is an astonishing claim. But what does “smoking-related death” actually mean?
The first thing to know is that non-smokers are routinely recorded as smoking-related deaths. That’s nothing to do with “passive smoking” - it’s because your death is defined as smoking-related because of the condition you died from, not because of any actual or possible direct or secondary exposure to tobacco smoke.
Put more crudely: the official definition of smoking-related, on which all the statistics and policies are based, has nothing to do with smoking.
Certain diseases and conditions have been officially declared smoking-related. If you die of one of those, you are listed as a smoking-related death. Whether or not you smoked isn’t recorded. If you die of cancer aged 99, having spent most of your life working in an asbestos factory, and having never smoked, you are, statistically, a smoking-related death.
Lords Hansard for July 1997 records some very interesting parliamentary answers to a series of questions put by non-smoking Labour peer Lord Stoddart. Remember, these are official pronouncements, by the health ministry. The official figure for smoking-related deaths in the UK at that time, as we know, was 120,000 per year. Parliament was told that “The proportion of the 120,000 people who died who were smokers at the time of death is not known: such information not recorded on the death certificate and analysis is not available at individual death level.”
The figure for smoking-related deaths includes people (and this, to be fair, is accepted by all sides) who would have died anyway at that age, whether or not they smoked, because of other factors. Incredibly, the figures for people who “die of smoking” even include smokers who live BEYOND the average life expectancy. Hansard says so: “The table shows that about 32,000 of the male deaths were at an age above the average life expectancy for men of 74 years and an estimated 15,000 of the female deaths were at an age above the average life expectancy for women of 79.”
The same series of questions by Stoddart also uncovered the extraordinary fact that over half of all deaths of non-smokers are counted as smoking-related. Again, it’s important to note that no-one is claiming that those are due to passive smoking; it’s simply a matter of classification.
So let’s be clear about this: all the statistical claims concerning smoking deaths are rubbish. They are the fruit of a poisoned tree. They are meaningless, and no intelligent person would even bother to look at them twice.
Here’s a question I’d like an answer to: is it true that, without exception, the illnesses classed as smoking-related are primarily illnesses of the elderly? If so, what proportion of elderly non-smokers eventually succumbs to one or more of these illnesses? If the answer is that a higher proportion of elderly people as a whole than of smokers eventually dies of a “smoking-related” illness, should those illnesses not be reclassified as “age-related”?
How many deaths from other causes are included in the figures for smoking deaths? There’s no way of knowing - but it looks like it might be quite a few, doesn’t it?
“A radioactive gas which seeps naturally into homes causes almost one in 10 lung cancer deaths,” according to a study published on the British Medical Journal website. (Daily Mirror, 22 Dec 04).
A prestigious and independent European scientific committee reported in 2003 that 65 million deaths worldwide would be caused by pollution from nuclear weapons and nuclear energy generated up to 1989; this includes deaths from a nuclear-triggered “cancer epidemic.” (Independent, 31 Jan 03).
In 2004, scientists announced new evidence suggesting that rising cancer rates in Western Europe might be the result of the Chernobyl nuclear power accident. (Somerset Standard, 25 Nov 04). In 1993, Nuclear Electric generously sponsored an exhibition on the dangers of passive smoking. (Morning Star, 9 Jan 93). Ah, passive smoking - so that's why the cancer rate is so high in Chernobyl.
A leading lung cancer expert, the medical director of the Cardio-thoracic Centre in Liverpool (who was also founder of the Lung Cancer Fund, and launched the appeal to build the Roy Castle Research Centre) warned in 1994 that “Because lung cancer is always put down to smoking, no-one is studying anything else. Some people smoke for 50 years and never get it, while others never touch a cigarette and still get it. I would love to see a graph of the rise in the use of the motor car, linked to a graph of lung cancer. Fumes pumped out by all those millions of cars must be having some effect.” (Daily Mirror, 8 Nov 94).
Years later, “the largest and longest study of its kind,” published in The Lancet, studied changes in lung function of thousands of children, and found that those who lived closest to busy roads were significantly more likely to develop asthma and COPD. (Daily Telegraph, 26 Jan 07). This was irrespective of “class, other pollution sources or exposure to tobacco smoke.” (Well - irrespective of class except in so far as the richer you are the more choice you have over where you raise your children, surely?)
An ASH spokesman said: “There are lots of sources of pollution we don’t have much control over,” unlike cigarette smoke. (Morning Star, 23 Aug 04). But “we” only lack control over other pollutants because “we” choose, collectively, not to control them. We could, if we had the will, legislate against all forms of man-made pollution.
And let’s never forget the class factor: life expectancy varies by up to seven years according to where you live, with people living “much” longer in affluent areas, and having the shortest lives in the poorest areas, according to research by the National Institute of Epidemiology at Surrey University. (Daily Telegraph, 5 Dec 97). Male manual workers are 40 per cent more likely to suffer from chronic sickness than their non-manual counterparts. Life expectancy is 10 years shorter for the poorest. (Morning Star, 9 Dec 06).
A US study of military veterans, published in Thorax, found that men with “high levels of hostility” had poorer lung function than their peers. Angry men also suffered a more rapid decline in lung capacity. This is linked to COPD, cardiovascular disease, and “increased mortality.”(BBC News website, 30 Aug 06).
Working in a noisy workplace can increase a man’s chances of a heart attack by a third. (Daily Mirror, 24 Nov 05). Workplace noise doesn't effect women, it seems - they are three times more likely to have a heart attack if exposed to high levels of environmental noise, such as traffic. Air pollution, according to a study using ultrasound, may lead to heart attacks and strokes to a degree “similar to smoking.” (Daily Mirror, 8 Nov 04).
People who live in heavily polluted areas of cities are more than two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by a heart attack or stroke, says research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. (Daily Telegraph, 1 Feb 07).
But what do you think it’ll say on the death certificate: pollution, or smoking?
In conversation with religious zealots, you’ll notice that absolutely every topic can be brought around to religion. It doesn’t matter what you talk about - the weather, sport, home improvement - it’ll all turn out to have a little, saviour-shaped message hidden within it. Followers of the antismoking cult are no different: to them, everything is caused by smoking. Nothing else exists.
In 1996 the Ministry of Defence in Britain told the widows of men who had been prisoners of war in Japan during World War Two that their pensions were to be cut if it was decided that their husbands might have died of smoking. (Sunday Telegraph, 20 Oct 96). Some widows, and surviving veterans, protested that many of the men had only taken up smoking in order to lessen the horrors of the camps, and the profound distress which haunted many of them for the rest of their lives. Former medical orderlies and commanding officers testified that they had ordered men to smoke, as the proven therapeutic effects of tobacco meant the difference between life and death for many PoWs.
Not important. Doesn’t matter. The Ministry ruled that smoking-related deaths were “self-inflicted,” and not due to war service but due to “personal habits.”
(When I was a child, I knew one of these old blokes, a victim of the Japanese camps; he didn’t smoke, as far as I know, but he did devote his life to his gentle religion, and to being remarkably kind to everyone he met; it worked for him, I have to say).
There is nothing - literally nothing - which a human can die of which won't be blamed on smoking. Not even being tortured to death in a jungle by religious fanatics who think their emperor is a living god.
Unhelpful data is just looked at in a mirror, or held upside down by its ankles, until it begins to make sense. Researchers found that people who smoke suffer greater stress than non-smokers. (Daily Mirror, 7 Mar 06). Or - to look at it right-way round - people who suffer from stress more than other people are more likely to smoke, because it reduces their stress.
Commenting on a product which tests the urine of non-smokers for their exposure to smoke (to encourage those they live with to give up smoking), the research director of ASH said: “I’d be worried if people regarded a low result as a licence to carry on [smoking].” (Daily Mirror, 9 Nov 05). In other words, if you are worried that your smoking is harming your spouse, and you take a test to find out, and the test says it isn’t - ignore the test. Most likely, the devil has sent a false test, to test you. Don’t fall for it!
"Veteran leader Deng Xiaoping does not set a good example. At 81 he makes no attempt to hide his chain smoking and claims it does not affect his health". (London Standard, 30 Jul 85). The implication is clear - this sneaky oriental was lying! Either he wasn't a real smoker, or else he was secretly dead; everybody knows it's impossible to be a healthy 81 year-old tobacco user. Besides, at his age Deng should know better.
A 50-year study of smoking and health - the most famous such study ever - reported in 2004 that giving up at almost any age could add years to your life expectancy. If you gave up before 30, the risk was “almost totally removed.” But the man in charge of the study added forcefully that this “was not a green light for youngsters to think smoking was not harmful until they were 30 and then they could quit.” (Daily Mirror, 23 Jun 04). Well, yes it is, actually, Prof - according to your own findings, that’s exactly what it is. You just said so! Do you not remember reading that bit out?
An American study found that people “with a short fuse” are more likely to smoke and drink (presumably as self-medication) and are more likely to suffer heart attacks. (Daily Mail, ?/?/00). But where’s the evidence that they’re more likely to have heart attacks because they smoke - rather than that they are more likely to have heart attacks because they are short-fused, and they are more likely to smoke because they are short-fused? Two separate characteristics, which might be linked by a third, unknown factor. How many other studies, which claim to show statistical links between disease and smoking, choose to ignore the “third factor”?
Everything is blamed on smoking: Wales & West Trains announced in 1998 that it was banning smoking on all its trains (The Mirror, 12 Mar 98). The managing director said: “This will improve the quality of our services.” Banning smoking will make the trains run on time!
“Doctors in Germany revealed that non-smokers get the best jobs and move more quickly up the career ladder. Smokers have less chance because they ‘create a negative atmosphere’ at interviews.” (The Mirror, 16 Apr 97). “Revealed” is a good religious word - the Truth about Smoking is often revealed, rather than proved.
Scotland’s deputy health minister, commenting on astonishing mortality figures amongst working-class Glaswegians, denied that poverty was the cause. “These are very complex figures, and they can throw up confusing results, but there is a thread which runs through this and it is smoking.” (Morning Star, 1 Sep 04). Not poverty; smoking. All illness is self-inflicted, remember.
Reporters react with puzzlement when people who follow the teachings of healthianity - or at least live lives which coincide with them - nonetheless prove mortal. The Daily Telegraph’s obituary (7 Apr 06) of smokers’ rights campaigner Chris Tame included this extraordinary line: “He was (despite his early death) a non-smoker and a keep-fit enthusiast.” And this is from The Wisden Cricketer (Jun 06): “In April last year Thompson felt unwell and was told by his doctor that - despite having never smoked a cigarette - he had inoperable lung cancer.”
But the best ever blame-smoking obit was on BBC Radio 4 news (30 Nov 92), announcing the death of Sunnie Mann - who was 78 when she died from cancer, and whose husband had been held a hostage in Beirut for more than two years. It began with the words “Sunnie Mann, who was a heavy smoker ... ” Well, the BBC must have its priorities, after all.
The research manager at ASH says that “About 70 per cent of smokers would really like to stop, but few manage to quit because they are enslaved by nicotine. The good news is that there are 11 million ex-smokers in the UK.” (Independent, 8 Mar 05)
Enslaved! Splendid - just like the Israelites in Egypt, so the Old Testament tells us. But wait a minute - if “few manage to quit,” where did that 11 million exes come from? And how is it that there are more ex-smokers than there are smokers?
If you’re quite old, you can probably remember when people were advised to smoke less. That doesn’t happen any more: no part of the antismoking alliance, not even GPs and practice nurses, would dream of telling a smoker to cut down these days.
A central message of contemporary healthianity is that smoking is all or nothing - that you must give up (as we used to say in Britain; “quit,” as we are taught to say now), that you must repent, that you must undergo the baptism of giving up in order to be born again cleansed of the sin of smoking. You can’t be slightly pregnant, they say; you can’t be mostly a virgin - and you can’t be a moderate smoker, a light smoker, an occasional smoker. You’re either a smoker or you’re not. You’re either a good person or a bad person.
This message is so central nowadays that I will give you a prediction, a rock-solid, money-back prediction: sometime during the next few years it will be announced that light smoking is worse for you than heavy smoking.
Supporting the BBC’s Kick the Habit campaign (Radio Times, 27 Jan 01) Dr Mark Porter admitted that long-term health risks associated with smoking “are linked to the number of cigarettes smoked (average consumption is 17 a day.) So, in theory, the fewer cigarettes the better.”
Well, no, Mark - not “in theory.” If what you tell us is right, then actually, definitely; not grudgingly, as if it’s irrelevant, merely “in theory.” But cutting down won't work, he went on, because “most people” who try to cut down are soon smoking the same amount as before. “Stopping altogether is the only workable option for most smokers.” But only, perhaps, because despite the billions spent by the state on stopping people smoking, not a penny is spent on helping people cut down.
All the same, we must be grateful for Dr Porter’s extremely rare admission that it’s excessive smoking that’s bad for you (as is excessive jogging, excessive working, excessive drinking of fruit juice - excessive anything.) It’s an admission rarely made, for sound business reasons: if the antismoking movement were to become an anti-excessive smoking movement, its aims would be so easy to achieve, and so uncontroversial, that the whole religion, and the industry it supports, would be finished overnight.
“You must be totally committed to giving up. Cutting down rarely works - you must decide to become a non-smoker and throw out all your cigarettes.” (Daily Mirror, 30 Dec 96).
“Even the occasional cigarette is damaging.” (People Magazine, 6 Jul 97). People who don’t smoke every day, but only once or twice a week in social settings, are now classified as “binge smokers” and are “much more” at risk than regular smokers. (Independent on Sunday, 30 Nov 03). Told you so. But if all smokers are addicts, how are these bingers able to only smoke at weekends? Pacts with the devil, most likely.
Light smoking - “cutting down” - is the antismoker’s worst nightmare. After all, if people were simply to smoke less, and stop worrying about it ... well, they wouldn’t be worrying about it any more. And that would ruin everything.
“Just one cigarette a day can treble risk of fatal illnesses.” (Independent, 22 Sep 05). “Overall, light smokers had a 50 per cent higher risk of dying from any cause than non-smokers and the risk rose with the number of cigarettes smoked.” Any cause? Including having a piano fall on your head? ASH spelt it out: “There is no safe level of smoking. Every cigarette is dangerous.” (Daily Mirror, 22 Sep 05). Dr Porter’s measured honesty is not universal amongst his colleagues.
“There is no evidence that heavy smokers who halve their daily cigarette intake significantly cut their risk of early death, a study showed today ...the only way to cut the risk is to stub it out completely.” (Western Daily Press, 28 Nov 06).
What a bizarre idea: that something is bad for you, but that more of it is not more bad for you than less. Clearly, this might be true of fatal substances: if you eat enough of a deadly poison to kill you outright, then eating twice as much won’t make any difference. But we’re not yet being told that every time we smoke a fag we instantly drop down dead - so how can this possibly be true? It isn't true of booze, or fatty food, or lethargy, or ... or at least, it’s not true yet.
But sometimes rationality peeps through the curtain of faith. Heavy smoking significantly reduces women’s chances of getting pregnant, researchers reporting in the journal Human Reproduction found (Daily Telegraph, 9 Nov 06). This seems unsurprising, and uncontroversial. One aspect of the research, however, is most interesting: “They concluded that those who either did not smoke or smoked fewer than 10 cigarettes per day were more than 50 per cent more likely to have a baby.” It is heavy smoking - not smoking itself - that causes this fertility problem. For the purposes of this study, indeed, non-smokers and light smokers were treated as a single group.
But sin is absolute: commit adultery once or a hundred times, it’s all the same; you have sinned, you are a sinner. If opposition to smoking was health-based then surely they would advocate that people do the dangerous thing less often. But because the opposition is religious, one smoke a week or 40 a day makes no difference - cannot be allowed to make any difference. To suggest that the evil of smoking can be compromised with - by reducing smoking instead of stopping it - is to suggest that sin can be compromised with.
Only total non-smoking is ever acceptable to the gods.
What proportion of heavy smokers die of “smoking-related diseases” compared both to non-smokers and light smokers? What evidence is there that light smoking shortens average life expectancy? Why isn’t antismoking campaigning targeted at heavy smoking - as is the case with most other official health risks?
In 1984 a university chemist in Kentucky announced that he’d created a tobacco mixture which contained 95% less nicotine and 20% less tar than normal smokes; smokers who tested it were satisfied with it. (Sunday Times, 15 Apr 84). Never heard of again, of course. It wasn’t in the interest either of the tobacco companies or the antismokers. Try this thought experiment, if you will: imagine if a method were found which, it was universally agreed, made smoking entirely harmless to the smoker and to those near him. Do you really believe that the antismoking movement would pack up? Would they legalise smoking in pubs?
The usual excuse for why, of all the millions spent on antismoking, none is spent on promoting or assisting “cutting down,” is that smoking is an addiction. Tobacco is addictive. Smokers are addicts. Everyone who smokes, we are told over and again, is addicted to smoking.
This is extraordinary, if you only to stop to think about it for a few seconds.
No-one pretends that everyone who ever drinks alcohol is an alcoholic. The very idea is demonstrably bonkers: it would mean that every vicar who sips a sherry at a Christmas do is an alcoholic, an addict, a sufferer from a crippling compulsion. It would mean that every single person without one exception on the face of the earth who had a glass of beer with his lunch last Sunday is, by clinical definition, an alcoholic in need of medical intervention to break their addiction and save their lives.
No-one pretends that. No-one pretends that everyone who eats one bag of crisps a week is addicted to food, a binge-eater. No well-informed person would suggest that everyone who has ever used - or occasionally uses - illegal drugs is a drug addict: given the well-established ubiquity of Ecstasy during the 1990s, that would mean that a very large majority of all British people born in the 1970s were drug addicts. No-one suggests such nonsense.
Tobacco is unique in being the only substance known to mankind which you can be defined as being addicted to no matter how light your usage of it is. No matter, even, that your usage does not follow any of the generally accepted signs of addiction: for instance, the need to constantly increase the dose. In the world of antismoking, if you smoke five cigarettes a day for thirty years you are an addict - even better, if you then cut down to four a day for the next thirty years you are still an addict!
“In Britain, 40 per cent of smokers have given up over the past 20 years.” (The Mirror, 8 May 97). That’s funny - I thought it was an addiction? And yet millions of people, apparently, take it up and then put it down again. Makes you wonder what those addicted to alcohol and heroin are making so much fuss about, doesn’t it? Why don’t they just “give up”?
Research at the University of Massachusetts, published in the medical journal Tobacco Control, “casts doubt on the belief that the strength of addiction is directly related to the number of cigarettes smoked.” (Independent, 12 Sep 00). Researchers surveyed a number of children, and found that “those who had an occasional cigarette showed signs of nicotine addiction. But some of those who smoked up to five a day showed no symptoms of addiction.” In other words - and I’m not making this up - the less they smoked, the more addicted they were. But surely an addict, by definition, needs more and more of the substance to which he is addicted?
A logical response to these findings might be to suppose that the research was flawed, and/or that smoking is not addictive, or not universally addictive. The antismoking movement’s response, however, was that: “These results indicate that daily smoking is unlikely to be a prerequisite for nicotine dependence,” and that the research proved that “addiction can be strong enough to propel people into a lifetime habit of smoking.”
Scientifically, these seem rather odd interpretations - but to the religious believer, of course, all evidence proves the Truth, because the Truth is the truth, and therefore by definition must always be supported by the evidence. If the evidence doesn’t support the Truth, it’s not evidence: it’s false witness. To the religious mind, as opposed to the scientific mind, the idea that a Truth, once established, could be disproved is absurd. (The sternly antismoking Daily Mirror headlined its report of this study “SMOKERS HOOKED AFTER A FEW PUFFS”.)
Incidentally, do “habit,” “dependence,” and “addiction” all have identical meanings?
A report by Mintel in 2001 showed that the number of heavy smokers had fallen. You might think this was good news, if you were worried about the health effects of heavy smoking, but ASH commented that: “This shows the addictive powers of tobacco. People want to cut down but find it difficult to give up.” Surely it just shows that people want to cut down instead of giving up, and are doing so successfully; and it certainly shows that the “addictive powers of tobacco” aren’t up to much, if people are successfully reducing the dose of the drug.
Of course, many people do indeed find smoking a dreadfully difficult habit to break - but that doesn’t make it an “addiction.” What it does suggest is that if people were helped to cut down, rather than worried half to death about giving up, there’d be a lot of happier and healthier people around.
Antismoking author Dr Alex Milne writes that young people often “believe they can experiment with smoking but won’t get hooked. But very few escape addiction.” (Daily Mirror, 1 Jan 99). I’d love to see the figures which support that assertion: that of the millions and millions of people who at some time in their lives smoke one cigarette, “very few” don’t end up “addicted.”
Don’t worry, they've got an answer to that: just one cigarette will make you an addict - even if you don’t become addicted! Isn't that wonderful? According to research published in Tobacco Control, a publication of the British Medical Journal (Daily Telegraph, 25 May 06), the addiction can lie dormant “for three years or more” (so which is it? Three years - or more?). The victims of this terrible affliction, known as the “sleeper effect,” become ticking time-bombs, just waiting for the “trigger” which will see them tumble into full-blown addiction.
There is no universally accepted medical definition of addiction (it isn't even universally accepted that addiction exists), but this does seem a pretty wild stretch: to include as addicts people who have no need or desire to use the thing they're addicted to, and who don’t in fact use that thing.
The same report tells us that, according to Cancer Research UK, “62% of 15-year-olds in England said they had experimented with cigarettes in 2004.” Which means - if all the above is true - that 62% of all 15-year-olds in England are addicted to smoking. Even if they don’t smoke.
The general secretary of the World Health Organisation (Independent, 3 May 99): “Initiation leads to addiction. Eighty per cent of smokers reveal that they were addicted before the age of 18.” How did they “reveal” this, I wonder? Were they asked, or did their body language give them away, or did a New Age pastor read their auras? Or were they diagnosed under clinical conditions by an accredited addiction specialist? Were they ballax!
The concept of addiction is directly descended from religion. In mediaeval times (as a real-life addiction expert, Professor Bruce Alexander, pointed out in the Daily Telegraph, 11 April 06), it was believed that people could become possessed - that is taken over, controlled - by demons. In the 19th century, and into the 20th, the same idea persisted, but the agent of possession wasn’t a supernatural entity as such: it was the “demon drink.” Today that’s a jocular phrase, but it was used in full earnest back then: anti-alcohol campaigners honestly believed that drink was a force of evil which possessed people, and led them into sin. During the 20th century, some drugs were made illegal for the first time and these illegal drugs took over from legal ones as the demons. The idea of the addict - a crazed, dehumanised, semi-feral, dangerous and ruthless monster - was born.
In recent years, as Alexander pointed out, a great deal of evidence (both anthropological and laboratory-based) has undermined the very idea of addiction. For instance, two major studies have looked at long-term users of heroin who have never become “junkies.” Alexander wrote: “They take their supposedly addictive drug the way the rest of us use our own habits, crutches or ‘non-addictive’ drugs.”
We all know people who use “addictive” substances without exhibiting any signs of demonic possession - and most of us know people who are less lucky. Most people punctuate their days or weeks with cups of tea, pints of beer or tots of Scotch, cigarettes or sweet snacks (all of which are officially addictive). And you probably have in your family at least one person who has lost his job or his marriage because he was never sober; or who smokes 20 fags a day when she’d really rather smoke five; or who can’t stop swigging coffee throughout the working day; or is constantly dieting and bingeing, unable to leave a packet of biscuits half-empty.
Surely it’s obvious that there are no addictive substances - there are only people who become addicted. It’s pretty simple: if smoking was addictive as such then everyone who smoked would be an addict.
Some research in the US found just how astonishingly addictive smoking is: out of the 70% of people sampled who had tried to quit, none - not a single one - had succeeded. The sample was of “more than 1,000 adult smokers.” (Reuters, 4 Feb 00). In other words, they asked 1,000 people who said they still smoked whether they’d succeeded in giving up smoking .... so, think about it, how come the figure wasn’t 100%? Sampling error, perhaps?
Here’s the Health Education Authority's smoking campaign manager: “There are 12 million ex-smokers in Britain. Giving up can be hard, but if they could do it, so can anyone.” (Morning Star, 1 Jun 98). So ... it’s not addictive, then?
Commenting on the 1997 Budget, antismoking group ASH welcomed the rise of 19p on a packet of 20 cigarettes, saying that it would save “3,500 lives a year.” Let’s not get distracted by that audaciously plucked figure, we’re not doing that bit now, we’ve done that bit; let’s wonder instead how price increases cure addiction. Ask a policeman: if the street price of heroin goes up, do you find that a proportion of your local addicts pack in junk because it is now too expensive? “Yes, I do miss shooting up, especially after a nice meal, but on the other hand by giving up I’ve saved enough money for a new dishwasher. The wife’s ever so pleased.”
In recent years it has become fashionable amongst the more hysterical fundamentalists to describe nicotine as “the most addictive substance known to man” (stick that phrase in a search engine, you’ll see dozens of examples). So why don’t smoke addicts, prevented from buying their fags by price rises, resort to burglary and mugging to raise the price of a fix? Because they're not addicts, that’s why.
Describing tobacco as "addictive" is a bit like calling Margaret Thatcher a "fascist" when what you mean is that she was rightwing. Saying that something is addictive when it is merely habit-forming robs the language of a term which should be used, if at all, with precision.
The antismoking industry can’t decide whether or not it agrees with me. Some years ago, the publicity material for National No Smoking Day reported that "People do stop smoking -12 million adults, 26 percent of the population, are ex-smokers". If a quarter of our nation is currently recovering from addiction - with all the lifelong clinical support which is unavoidable in such cases - well, it's no wonder Britain's health budget is feeling the pinch.
“About 400,000 smokers have kicked the habit in a single year, figures revealed yesterday.” (Daily Mirror, 19 Mar 04). Or, according to a lung specialist (Independent, 28 Sep 00): “Smoking is as addictive as heroin and, once a person is hooked, stopping is almost impossible.” Almost impossible, that is, except for the millions who do stop.
“Smoking causes ageing of the skin.” It says that here, on the front of this packet of tobacco.
Surely, ageing causes ageing of the skin? And why is ageing of the skin a bad thing? Is it the intention of the health authorities established by this country’s government to health educate the population into believing that ageing is some form of disease? Shouldn't we all be delighted to be ageing, given that so few of our ancestors (living in the days before secular science, socialised medicine, the welfare state, and trade unions) ever had the chance to grow old? Of course, such an approach would reduce the profits of the anti-ageing industry, currently running at many billions of pounds a year. And it is no bad thing, our masters might think, to spread the idea that ageing itself - and not just disease - is our own fault.
Health warnings aren’t quite the scriptures of healthianity - they’re more like Thought for the Day.
A sticker on the back of a tin of Ozona Raspberry Snuff says: “CAUSES CANCER.” This is a lie. It is not an exaggeration or an inaccuracy; it is a lie. You will not find one scientist on this planet willing to say that nasal snuff causes cancer.
On a tin of Rum & Blackberry snuff: “THIS TOBACCO PRODUCT CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH AND IS ADDICTIVE.” No it can’t - and no it isn’t. (I am not digressing, by the way, since there is no such thing as digression).
So, naturally, as a free citizen of a democracy, I wrote to the Department of Health asking them:
a) on whose authority this warning is printed on the tin;
b) What peer-reviewed scientific evidence was used as the basis for the two claims made in this warning.
The Customer Service Directorate of the Department of Health (I’m not a customer, I’m a citizen!) replied, very promptly: “There is no Governmental regulation for health warnings on snuff.” To find out where the warnings came from, they recommended I ask the manufacturers. Yes, right, because I bet snuff manufacturers put frightening and untrue health warnings on their own products for fun.
Oh, look - a clue. On the back of a tin of snuff: “EEC Council Directive (992/41/EEC) CAUSES CANCER.” It probably does; snuff, however, doesn’t.
A spokesman for the European Commission Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General Directorate C - Public Health and Risk Assessment C4 - Health Determinants (can you imagine how long his business card is?) confirmed to me that under Article 5 (4) of Directive 2001/37/EC “Smokeless tobacco products shall carry the following warning: ‘This tobacco product can damage your health and is addictive.’” My further question - what evidence does the Commission have that nasal snuff can damage health and/or is addictive - went unanswered. Unsurprisingly.
This is important for at least one obvious reason: if the health warnings on snuff have no basis in science, why should we assume that the health warnings on cigarettes are reliable? Once you know that someone tells significant untruths, it is prudent to suspect everything they say.
According to a professor speaking on behalf of Cancer Research UK, the health risks of snuff are “approximately one per cent compared with the risks associated with smoking.” Further that “there is no risk of lung cancer or respiratory disease, and little evidence of oral cancer or increase in heart disease.” (Edinburgh Evening News, 29 Oct 03).
(It’s not just Europe, to be fair: a Canadian friend tells me of buying a tin of apricot-flavoured snuff which carried the health warning “Tobacco Smoke Affects Everyone.” So, there you go - you shouldn’t set light to your snuff.)
The Cancer Research Campaign agrees: “There is no evidence of any association with cancer or other health risk in the snuff produced in this country. For this reason, snuff seems an entirely acceptable substitute for cigarette smoking and could be recommended for addicted cigarette smokers since if they could substitute snuff taking for cigarette smoking, they would greatly reduce the risk to their health.”(www.snuffbox.org.uk). Despite the EC health warnings, the UK government continues to exempt snuff from tobacco taxes, in order to encourage people to use it as a safe alternative to smoking.
Just supposing snuff, because it contains nicotine, were addictive (as far as I know no addict has ever been identified): why would it matter? It’s incredibly cheap, it’s not bad for you, it can’t possibly inconvenience or offend, let alone harm, any other person, or pollute the environment ... why would it matter?
Louis XIII of France banned it and Pope Urban VIII ordered that anyone taking snuff in church should be excommunicated, while Tsar Michael I of Russia decreed that snuff-takers should have their noses cut off. I give you this unconditional guarantee: if, following the smoking ban in pubs, people revert to taking snuff, then snuff will be banned, too.
The inaccuracy of health warnings matters because science matters. Scientific method is under attack. Precision, accuracy, the rules of evidence are under siege. These things matter. They matter as a matter of principle, because if they don’t matter at a small level, pretty soon they won’t matter at a great level. If they don’t matter when they’re to do with health warnings on baccy packs, then soon they won’t matter when they’re to do with nuclear power plants not exploding.
A case study: a woman who managed to cure her pot belly by giving up smoking (she believes) “now practices a type of reflexology involving special vacuum boots” which claims to “detoxify the body” (a process which does not, in fact, exist) and to “cut nicotine cravings.” There is no medically-accepted evidence that vacuum boots will do anything to or for you at all, except part fools from their money, but nonetheless a spokesman for ASH, Britain's best-known and most respectable antismoking organisation, “says there may be benefits.” She reasons (ha!) that anything which “will reduce stress” might help you give up smoking, “so it can only be a good thing.” (Independent, 5 Aug 99). And to hell with science! To hell with the Enlightenment! Proof is for pedants - let’s all go back to the Dark Ages, and live on faith, hope and charity, like our merry ancestors did.
“Smoking seriously harms you and others around you.” “Smoking when pregnant harms your baby.” These packet warnings are not true; at the very least, the word should be ‘might’ not ‘does.’ In case you think I’m being pedantic, try this: “Driving your car kills babies.” Well, why not? Babies do get killed, not infrequently, by people driving their cars. But of course you do not kill a baby every time you drive a car. It would be perfectly correct to put a health warning on all car keys: “Cars can kill babies.” It would be perfectly reasonable (though not as proven a case of cause and effect as with cars) to put a warning on cigarette wrappings: “Smoking when pregnant can seriously harm your child.” But does kill babies and does harm your child are wrong. They are as wrong as “Buying a lottery ticket makes you a millionaire.” Words matter; words should have meanings. When they don’t, as has been explained by great thinkers through the ages, bad things happen. Not can happen; do happen.
Large trousers should carry a health warning, according to a group of professors writing in the British Medical Journal (Independent, 16 Dec 06). All clothes with a waistline of 40 inches (for men) or 35 inches (for women) should be required to include a label with the phone number of an obesity help-line.
“Smoking kills” is one of the popular health warnings. A bold and bald statement. But: “If you are a 50-year-old smoker who does not have diabetes, has normal blood pressure and a cholesterol level of 6.8, your risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke in the next five years is about 2 per cent. If you stop smoking, you can halve this to about 1 per cent. If you continue smoking, but reduce your cholesterol level to 5.0 you can reduce your risk to about 1.4 per cent.” (Independent, 19 Jan 04).
Images are important in all religions. You must never utter Satan’s name aloud; talk of the devil and he’ll appear. Sin can act on your soul remotely.
In 1998, the Health Education Council “revealed that since 1990 it had been making a note of films with inappropriate attitudes towards smoking. One day, the council promised, the directors and actors would all be named and shamed.” (Independent, 10 Nov 98).
The General Synod of the Church of England voted 375 to 5 to support a ban on all tobacco advertising. (Independent, 8 Jul 98). The reverend gentleman who moved the motion explained that “God only permits us the freedom to do harm to ourselves and to others in order that we can therefore learn the true value of doing and promoting good,” though what the holy shit this had to do with “You’re never alone with a Strand” is not instantly obvious to the lay observer.
A notice on a wall at the Shakespeare Festival, Ontario: “Warning. There will be smoking during this performance.” (Independent on Sunday, 19 Jul 92). So even looking at cigarettes can give you passive death syndrome!
A study of Hollywood films, by the American Lung Association, found that “Kids come away thinking that the habit [smoking] is widely practiced by people in positions of power when it’s actually minority behaviour concentrated among the less-educated and the poor.” (Daily Telegraph, 19 Sep 96). Or trash, as they call them in the US. However, the “first objective study of smoking in contemporary US films” found that “in the movies, it is the bad guys who smoke. Lower class and unsuccessful characters smoke; the cigarette is a sign of evil intent.” (Independent, 9 Aug 05).
Smoking must be cut from all children’s cartoons shown on TV, says the regulatory authority, Ofcom; but violence and cruelty are allowed. (Daily Telegraph, 22 Aug 06). One of history’s most famous smokers is Winston Churchill - but an actor portraying him in a play in Edinburgh was not allowed to smoke: the theatre was officially threatened with closure if he did. (Daily Telegraph, 8 Aug 06). The producers of a play about the chain-smoking comedian Bill Hicks discovered that when the actor playing Hicks needed to light up, he was required by law to leave the theatre and smoke outside, while the audience watched him on CCTV. This worries me: surely this exposure via CCTV will have caused the deaths of many of the audience?
David Lister, in his arts diary in The Independent (21 Jan 06) wrote of his astonishment at finding a large sign in the foyer of a West End theatre warning that “Cigarettes are smoked during this performance.” He notes that, in the same production, “guns were fired at people and there was a horrific description of a gang rape,” but that warnings were not posted for these because “only smoking has been deemed a cultural hazard.” As he points out, there can be no genuine fear of the effects of passive smoking on the audience: what people are being warned about is that they are “about to see a social taboo on stage. It’s not for the faint-hearted.”
In the mid-1990s I received an invitation from my trade union, the Writer's Guild, to attend a craft meeting on "Writing Smoke off the Screen". Speakers, including the executive producers of Casualty and EastEnders, would be on hand to discuss "the responsibility television and soap operas have to include health education messages in their storylines." The first thought that drifted into my tobacco-addled mind was that I've never heard of a craft meeting about "Writing Murder off the Screen." Or rape. Or child molesting, or divorce, or traffic accidents, or sudden bereavement, or serious illness, or long-term unemployment. And quite right, too, because all these things are part of life for most people. (Not all at once, one hopes, but you'd be very lucky to avoid the lot, forever). No, smoking alone is considered evil enough to warrant this kind of crusade. Future generations, I suspect, will look back on our era's hysterical obsession with tobacco smoke in amused, or even outraged, wonder. In a period of social crisis and unprecedented threats to the very existence of life on earth, our descendants will ask, how did this single herb, which may or may not be mildly injurious to the health of some individuals, ever become the focus of so much apocalyptic debate? That's always assuming, of course, that we actually have any descendants. If we don't, then one thing we can say for sure is that it won’t be because smoking made us all impotent, it will be because we filled our hearts with trivia.
(TV studios count as workplaces, naturally, under the smoking bans; so in future, when BBC television films a scene set in, say, a London pub in 1941, not a single person in that pub will be smoking. And thus is history is rewritten.)
The SS Great Britain Project removed the cigar from the mouth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the photo of him they used in promotional material (Independent on Sunday, 11 Oct 98). You can see their problem: obviously, if Brunel smoked, he can’t have been a great man, because great men do not smoke. But he was a great man. Therefore - he didn't smoke, by definition, so history must be wrong. So: change history. Now everything’s OK.
Antismokers campaigned to have Sir Walter Raleigh posthumously stripped of his
knighthood (Observer, 23 Aug 92). It goes without saying (let alone proving) that such a move would save countless lives. Research has established that Raleigh's gong kills millions every year, through the peril of "passive honours listing."
Here’s the editor of the Radio Times (26 Oct 91): “I try to avoid photographs of people smoking except where it seems right for the plot or the period.” In 1986 the BBC went to extraordinary lengths to try and avoid showing snooker players smoking in their chairs during televised tournaments - and ended up broadcasting footage of headless torsos, and close-ups of unattached buttocks and legs.
High achievers, in the last couple of centuries, have generally been smokers - which is a big problem. One of the fittest men in the world in the last decade or so was Shane Warne, the Australian spin bowler. He played Test cricket, five days in a row, six hours a day, for much of the year, for many years. You have to be extraordinarily fit to do that; considerably fitter, let us agree, than the average. But he was a “self-confessed heavy smoker.” This was bad, because people might think “Well, if he smokes and he’s fit enough to be the world’s most successful bowler ... ” So a drug company, selling nicotine replacement aids, offered him £80,000 to give up smoking publicly.
(He failed, incidentally, and went on to reach even greater heights, retiring some years later as the man generally held to be the greatest bowler in the history of the game.)
Images and symbols; they are central to any religious message. In New York City, following the ban on smoking in workplaces, the editor of Vanity Fair was prosecuted three times by the authorities - not for smoking, but for displaying an ashtray on his desk. He said: “Under current New York City law, it is acceptable to have a loaded handgun in your place of work, but not an ashtray.” (Independent, 19 Jan 04).
If only you accept the Glory of Anti-Smoking into your Heart and Repenteth your Sins, you will be Saved. Conventional medicine can’t help you, but the world’s fastest-growing religion - the church of the born-again non-smoker - can and will. Through purity of soul, immortal life can be achieved.
In the Daily Mirror (4 Feb 04), advice columnist Dr Miriam Stoppard reported the following miracle: “A small town in Montana decided to ban smoking in all public places and heart attack rates fell by nearly 60 per cent in the first six months. When the state legislature lifted the ban, after pressure from the tobacco industry, heart-attack rates bounced back almost as quickly as they had fallen.”
This heart-warming tale - and the unquestioning way in which it is retold - is fairly typical of miracle stories (and, for instance, of UFO abduction accounts). Anyone who expresses surprise at the previously unreported fact that smoking in public places - divorced from all other factors, such as diet, heredity, exercise routine, occupation, social class and so on, not to mention smoking in private places - can have such a radical, widespread, and above all fast effect on heart attack rates, is guilty of closing their hearts against the Truth.
Looked at rationally, the story is obviously absurd. But that’s to miss the point - which is that the smoking ban itself worked the miracle; those repentant people were saved by the symbolism of the ban, not by anything as mundane (and gradual) as a reopening of their arteries. When they subsequently turned their backs on the Truth, their punishment was equally swift.
“Love them or hate them, you have to accept that sprouts are good for you ... Research shows that eating three servings of sprouts a week can lower the risk of prostate cancer by 14%.” (Sainsbury’s Magazine, Nov 06). Now, I love sprouts. I grow them and I eat them by the plateful (the trick is to cover the plants completely in horticultural fleece from transplanting until the first frost, and to cook the sprouts for ten minutes in an electric steamer.) But I have to ask: what can possibly be the evolutionary advantage of hating things that increase our chances of survival? Never mind - the important thing to remember is that salvation is thine through self-flagellation; if you don’t like eating it, it’s good for you.
A friend who worked in old peoples’ homes told me of the appalling cruelty and sheer evil of healthianity in that setting; of people in their last decade or year of life, systematically stripped of every small consolation: banned from smoking - or if not outright banned, then subjected to effectively compulsory re-education sessions.
Bullying, we would call this, or abuse, under any other circumstances. For the benefit of their health, the inmates are prevented from eating the food they are familiar with, comfortable with, take sustenance and pleasure from, the food that has sustained them to their current age, because that food is not healthy (it was when they were young, but fashion changes); for the good of their health, they must eat salads and wholemeal bread and five pieces of fucking fruit every day, no matter what that does to their digestions and spirits. This is why - this is the chief reason why - malnutrition is such a severe problem amongst old people in hospitals and homes; they are forced to eat by fashion, not by choice; food is a sacrament, not a pleasure.
(Throughout the history of smoking, the authorities have used the confiscation, withholding or rationing of tobacco as a tool of control: this has, through the centuries, been the practice in prisons, asylums, and “welfare homes” of all kinds - for unmarried mothers, poor people, old people, orphans, juvenile delinquents, homeless people, tramps and so on).
Here again, it is clear that healthianity has nothing to do with health. No-one honestly believes - no matter how natively unintelligent, it is not possible to be an evolved human and believe - that octogenarians can benefit, in terms of longevity or comfort, from having their bad habits broken, from eating brown pasta and giving up smoking. No-one believes that; if you say you do, you are a liar and you deserve to burn.
But what some do believe, in all sincerity, is that it is never too late to save an immortal soul. That no matter how old you are, you can still renounce sin and walk in the path of light.
Evil and cruelty; a few lines ago, you thought I was exaggerating. Good luck: you’re next for the treatment, and your mum or your gran are already receiving it.
“New Health Minister Tessa Jowell [said on first taking office] that stopping young people taking up cigarettes was her number one priority.” Unlike other health policy priorities she might have chosen, this one required no change in the balance of power and wealth in the country, nor even much public spending. Our grandparents fought the “Five Giant Evils: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.” Today, we fight ETS.
There are many actions governments can take which will improve a nation’s health, but it is cheaper and easier - albeit infinitely less effective - to tell us that ill-health is our own fault, and the only way to avoid it is for us to change our evil habits. “Giving up smoking is the single best thing anyone can do for their health.” - Caroline Flint, Public Health Minister (Morning Star, 31 May 05). No it isn’t.
“Tobacco is uniquely dangerous.” - Tessa Jowell (Daily Mirror 11 Dec 98). No it isn’t. “Smoking is the single greatest cause of preventable death.” - Tessa Jowell (Daily Mirror, 11 Dec 98).
NO IT ISN’T!
Poverty, war, inequality, man-made famine, lack of water, lack of medicine. Did I mention war? Of course smoking isn’t the single greatest cause of preventable death, for heaven’s sake! How could anyone who isn’t actually insane manage to live in such a bubble of fantasy that they could bring themselves to say, let alone believe, something so self-evidently nonsensical? But of course - that’s always the question, isn’t it, when it comes to religion?
The best way of avoiding cancer is to die before you get old, since the great majority of cases of cancer occur in old age. But it’s possible there might be other ways: working men who take a siesta, “occasionally or systematically,” have a 64% lower risk of having a heart attack than those who do not, according to research by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Athens Medical School. (Daily Telegraph, 13 Feb 07). I look forward to the government’s multi-million pound health education campaign persuading workers to have naps after lunch - or perhaps even legislation compelling employers to facilitate napping. No? Well, why not, since it seems such a move would save more lives than banning smoking?
An important job of the cancer research industry's tens of thousands of well paid full-time staff is to correct the wrong notions which people stubbornly continue to hold about smoking. Recently, for example, it emerged that teenagers were more worried about pollution, particularly traffic fumes, than they were about cigarette smoke. I'm glad to say that this unpardonable heresy was quickly quashed by a leading Professor of Antismoking, who described it as a "crazy idea." Phew!
Only smoking matters: nothing else exists.
MP George Foulkes suggested a ban on smoking while driving (Daily Telegraph, 7 Jan 86). Mr Foulkes was not in favour of banning drivers from using car phones, shaving, eating or drinking at the wheel, because "I am only concerned with the issue of restricting smoking in public places at the moment, and do not want to be drawn into issues regarding road safety." The honourable gentleman thus demonstrated an admirable sense of priorities: road safety is nothing, less than nothing, obsessed with the trivial, temporal business of saving lives. Whereas restricting smoking in public places - that’s about souls. That’s the nitty-gritty.
A post office worker who fought off an armed robber was sacked when she was subsequently caught smoking on duty. (Morning Star, 12 Aug 94). Well, fair enough - refusing to hand over your employer's money to a man with a sawn-off shotgun is all very well, but only smoking matters. Don’t you see? Nothing else exists.
Another health minister, the Secretary of State himself this time, told the House of Commons on the 15th May 1997: “Smoking is the largest single preventable killer of people in this country: at least one in every five deaths is caused by smoking.” Furthermore: “The fact is that the tobacco industry, uniquely among industries, kills about 120,000 of its own customers every year, so it has to recruit another 120,000 new smokers every year to its ranks to make up for that year's casualties.”
In theological debate, it’s best to employ assertion instead of argument. The general secretary of the World Health Organisation (Independent, 3 May 99): “Cigarettes are inherently dangerous products.” What does this mean? Does it mean that every single cigarette ever smoked by anyone causes that specific person harm on that specific occasion? If so, how do we explain smokers who live to an average age, in average health? And if not, it has no meaning at all - since cars, bicycles, potato peelers, electric drills, banana skins, step ladders and Jimmy wigs are also “inherently harmful.” As are nurses. I knew someone once who was punched by a nurse in a night club, and lost several teeth. She took offence when his Jimmy wig fell into her cocktail. Nurses - and nuns and notaries public and nonagenarians - are inherently harmful in the sense that they are inherently capable of causing harm, under certain circumstances. Which is the only way in which cigarettes - or anything else on earth - are also “inherently dangerous.”
(A fashionable cliche has it that cigarettes are “the only product which is fatal when used according to manufacturers’ instructions.” So, unlike smart bombs and napalm, for instance. Which are fatal. As opposed to cigarettes, which aren't.)
One of the many questions I’ve been unable to find an answer to while researching this, is: what proportion of smokers die before the age of 70, compared to non-smokers?
Here’s that figure again: “Tobacco firms have to recruit 120,000 youngsters each year to replace the same number who die from tobacco-related diseases.” (Daily Mirror, 11 Dec 98). This statement is frequently made and rarely challenged, this picture of Beelzebub cynically harvesting souls. But does it make sense? Presumably the vast majority of those smokers are dying at roughly the same age as the rest of the population. It’s not as if 120,000 youngsters are dying, needing replacing with 120,000 more - virgins sacrificed to be replaced with more virgins. It’s just a dramatic way of saying that all businesses must attract custom continually, or cease trading. Computer repairmen, bungalow salesman, slipper designers. Even nurses.
Your GP gets paid an extra fee every time she advises you to stop smoking. That’s why, if you are 118 years old, and you are visiting your doctor for a tourist jab before setting off on your honeymoon to Morocco, she is required under the terms of her contract, if she knows or suspects that you are a smoker, to ask you if you would like help giving up. She doesn’t ask you about depression, or eyesight, or memory loss. She doesn’t have to. Because only smoking counts: nothing else exists.
All religions have their excesses. The rest of us are supposed to ignore them (“It’s basically a peaceful faith, perverted by a handful of hotheads”) but I reckon you should judge a cause by its worst adherents as well as by its best. Isn’t that fair?
At a rock concert in Salt Lake City in 1997, members of a pro-abstinence youth cult, whose members are celibate and do not use alcohol, tobacco, caffeine or other drugs, stabbed a 15-year-old to death for smoking. (Independent on Sunday, 25 Sep 05).
A British man aged 57 flew to Australia from Thailand. Not allowed to smoke on the flight, as soon as he reached the pavement outside Brisbane airport he put an (unlit) cigarette in his mouth; didn't have time to light it. He was attacked by a security guard from the airport who “went berserk” and “beat him to a pulp.” He was beaten so badly that bones could be seen sticking out of him. (The Mirror, 31 Jan 00). He was hospitalised for several days, with numerous broken bones and blood loss.
A man who kicked another man to death in a Japanese railway station - because he had lit a cigarette in a non-smoking area - was given a three-year suspended sentence instead of being sent to prison, after antismoking groups urged leniency. (Independent, 14 Jul 94).
A man who put an unlit cigarette in his baby’s mouth while showing him off to his friends - a proud, daft dad, in other words - was jailed for 28 days in Maidstone. (Morning Star, 10 Feb 96).
Smoking is terrorism. “Non-smokers in the House of Lords are being ‘terrorised’ by some smoking peers who insist on their right to smoke in the bars,” according to a complaint made by Lord Peston during question time. (Independent, 11 May 99). Oh, quite. What could be more frightening than a geriatric toff, or senile former union leader, puffing on a pipe in a pub? Those softies in the Middle East really don't know they're born, whining on about bus bombs and bunker-busters.
In 1999, Japan's biggest cigarette manufacturer planned to donate millions of free fags to old people living in nursing homes, to mark the annual “Respect for the Aged Day.” Sounds like a pretty standard PR/marketing wheeze (if you'll forgive the word); cheap publicity, much cheaper than advertising, like those tightwad companies who get their names read out on live TV for giving a miserly donation to Red Nose Day.
But the head of Japan’s Tobacco Problems Information Centre accused the company of “plotting to kill millions of elderly people.” Giving oldsters free smokes was, he or she said, “Almost the same as pushing them in front of a train.” (Independent, 15 Sep 99). You've got to be grateful for that “almost,” I suppose, though I’d love to know: can smoking in old age, given how long “smoking-related” diseases take to kill, be shown to reduce existing geriatric life expectancy?
Extremism and hysteria: the true face of religion, stripped of its nice stuff.
The babies of parents who smoke can take in “third-hand smoke” by touching the furniture as they crawl around it. A scientist said: “The million-dollar question is: How dangerous is this?” (Daily Mirror, 8 Aug 06). Even to pass through the evil ones’ dens of depravity, to be soiled by their relics, is to become infected with their corruption.
In Southern California - well, yeah, I know, but are you really confident that Blighty isn't halfway to SoCal already? - any building which permits smoking must, by law, display the following notice: “Warning: this area contains toxic materials known to the State of California to cause birth defects, cancer and other reproductive harm.” (Independent, 4 Feb 99).
Religious mania often affects pubescent minds. A survey of 14-to-18-year-olds in 1996 found that a large proportion of them listed giving up smoking as their new year’s resolution - even though they didn't smoke. (Daily Mirror, 30 Dec 96).
(It’s quite fun this, isn’t it? Religious hysteria is funny, but it may also be true that any cause which finds it necessary to use hysteria routinely is not only short on proper thinking, but also incapable of self-regulation; like men who can’t help losing their tempers and hitting their wives and have to go on anger-management courses.)
You can smell sin on the unclean. Here’s the health editor of the Daily Mirror (11 Dec 98): “There’s no hiding from it. Your fag is going to give you heart disease, cancer or a stroke. It is going to damage your unborn child, your newborn baby and toddler. Even if you are so selfish that you don’t care about yourself or your family’s health, think about how much you stink. Sobering isn’t it. [sic]” Are these the words of a grown-up?
The Director of ASH: “Taking nicotine by inhaling cigarette smoke is like injecting hard drugs through a dirty syringe.” (Press Association, 3 Feb 99). A dean at Harvard University: “Cigarettes are finely tuned drug delivery devices designed to perpetuate a tobacco pandemic.” (Morning Star, 19 Jan 07). Note, again, that tobacco itself is the pandemic, not cancer or heart attacks or whatever: tobacco, a pandemic of pleasure and dissent.
A company in New Hampshire has a policy that any employee suspected of smoking a cigarette within the 45 minutes before he arrived at work will be sacked - even if he was smoking on his own time in his own home. (Independent, 22 Feb 99).
Explaining why separate smoking rooms weren’t an alternative to smoking bans, an ASH spokesman said: “A lot of smokers say that provided there’s a separate room, this doesn't have to be a problem. But, inevitably, the door is left open.” (Independent, 29 Sep 99). So the sin can seep out ... you can't help wondering, in fact, if the door isn't left open deliberately by evildoers, by Satanists, because, after all, automatically closing doors were not an entirely unknown technology even in the twentieth century.
Did you know that "the mere act of tasting fat without swallowing it can be
bad for your health, new research has found”? (Sunday Telegraph, 13 Oct 96). Why anyone should wish to taste fat without swallowing it, I couldn't say. Perhaps this is a very specialised health scare which only applies to those who make their living as quality control testers in cream bun factories. Or perhaps it is aimed at misguided dieters, who have previously been in the habit of sucking their meals and then spitting them out. Either way, this Fat Tasting Terror makes the theory of passive smoking look almost rational by comparison.
In that great headquarters of the worldwide campaign against civilization and for the repeal of the Enlightenment, the godly State of Texas, prisoners awaiting execution are now forbidden from enjoying the traditional last cigarette. Smoking has been banned in all Texan jails, on the grounds of health. Sticks of celery are offered to inmates as an alternative. Those who misbehave, I daresay, are given two sticks of celery. It is undeniably a great step forward for the human rights movement, that, in the only country in the world which applies capital punishment to mentally handicapped juveniles, the authorities go to so much trouble to ensure that the people they lynch enjoy the best of health.
Yes, the prisons of Texas have become smoke-free zones ... except, one supposes, for the smoke that emerges from the mouth and ears of the clean-lunged prisoner, as he is slow-roasted in the electric chair.
In the US a divorced woman was threatened with being barred from access to her children (who lived with their father) because she was a smoker; her ex-husband complained that the children were exposed to “residues.” (Sunday Telegraph, 22 Feb 99). He meant signs of sin, marks of the Beast, such as flecks of ash.
Not all extremists live in the USA. A council in North Wales admitted that it was investigating a complaint of “alleged odour nuisance,” caused by a couple smoking in their own home; their neighbours complained. (Western Daily Press, 10 Jan 07). A salesman, sacked from his job when his boss found out he was a smoker, says the boss told him: “This company does not employ smokers. Smokers make me feel physically sick.” (The Mirror, 15 Nov 01). Smokers, you’ll note, not smoke; the sinner, not the sin.
In third world countries like the USA, where workers have few rights, it is increasingly common for people to be sacked from their jobs because their leisure-time activities are disapproved of by their employers. This practice is spreading rapidly even to civilized countries. In 2005, a 21-year-old administrator was dismissed within an hour of starting her £6-an-hour job when her new company discovered that she was a smoker. A spokesman for the employer boasted “It’s positive discrimination and we’re proud of it.”
Clearly, there can be no practical reason for banning employees from smoking when they're not at work - but the sin of smoking is so vile and unforgivable that to have such people around is intolerable. In previous centuries, divorced women, homosexuals and non-churchgoers were similarly treated.
An ASH spokesman told the Daily Mirror (27 Jun 03): “We keep trying to hammer home to people that if you smoke long-term you will die from smoking, and you will die horribly from diseases like emphysema and lung cancer.” Again, the mortality rate is 100%. Science is built on data; faith is built on clouds of wishful thinking. They are different things, and there can never be peace between them.
This is a front page headline from the Harrow Informer (23 Oct 92): “Health Education Authority report claims FAGS KILL EVERYONE.” I suppose that’s the last word in fundamentalism, really. We’ll move on.
Today’s orthodoxy is tomorrow’s absurdity. That is the history of human belief in a sentence. Everyone knows it’s true of the past, but many are reluctant to admit that it must be true of the present, too.
People officially classed as “overweight” live longer than those officially classed as “normal,” according to research in the US by the Centres for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute. Several studies have suggested that people need to put on weight as they grow older. A professor of sociology at the University of Southern California commented on the findings: “What is officially deemed overweight these days is actually the optimal weight.” (Independent, 21 Apr 05). That is, by the way, one of a number of recent studies which show, or suggest, that fat people live longer than thin people. Of course, throughout most of human history that would have been considered too obviously true to be worth saying.
In 2006, a Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that it was “women on the medically approved low fat diet who have the higher risk of heart disease.” (Daily Telegraph, 26 Jan 07). A study of children, by Goteborg University in Sweden, found that the children who ate the least fat were the fattest. Those who ate the most fat were not likely to be obese. (Western Daily Press, 31 Jan 07).
It’s instructive to remember that wine became “good for you” in Britain only when wine-drinking, in Britain, became fashionable and aspirational. When American coffee shop chains began to replace British cafes, and therefore drinking coffee socially became (not for the first time in history) highly fashionable, and associated with the young and upwardly-mobile, it was at that exact moment that coffee became “good for you.” Both wine and coffee had, previously, been “bad for you”.
Here is a very incomplete list of things which were originally marketed primarily or exclusively as health aids: fizzy drinks, chocolate, tobacco, biscuits, heroin, chewing gum, cocoa, Maltesers.
Healthiness is little more (nothing more?) than a branch of fashion, and fashion is based, always and everywhere, overtly or ironically, on social class.
We must be aware of space as well as time. What seems insane in one country is official medical orthodoxy elsewhere. In South Korea, it seems, leaving an electric fan running in your bedroom overnight can be fatal (either through hypothermia, or by creating a vacuum around the sleeper’s face). South Korean newspapers report an average of 10 such deaths per year. (Fortean Times, Nov 06). Fans come fitted with timer switches, as a safety precaution (just as, in this country, we fit cut-outs to heating devices). Korean doctors warn of fan death syndrome; they know it exists; it is proven and accepted (just as doctors in this country know it doesn’t exist). In one culture, passive smoking; in another, electric fans; in another, perhaps, restless spirits of the unavenged dead - or even, stomach ulcers being caused by living it up.
When I was a child, as you may remember, red meat and full-fat milk were essential dietary elements to prevent children growing up bow-legged, bald, and feeble-minded. Today, red meat and full-fat milk are poisons (or was that last week? I try not to keep up). In both times, these were facts, not hypotheses; they were not/are not put forward for consideration. They are the Truth, and ye shall harken to the Word. I don’t eat meat, red or otherwise, and I don’t drink milk, but I thank my luck that I am not stupid enough to believe that this abstention is “good for me” or “bad for me.”
The concept of “junk food” vanishes as soon as you try to define it. The British government recently introduced rules to prevent junk food being advertised on TV to children. As soon as the guidelines were published, the food industry began identifying items which would now be officially classed as junk food, because they contained unacceptable amounts of sugar, salt or fat: Marmite, Cheddar cheese, porridge, raisins, some types of honey, All-Bran, Greek yoghurt, olive oil, and tomato ketchup were on the banned list, since they were assessed by the Food Standards Agency as being HFSS: high in fat, salt or sugar. Chicken nuggets and diet colas were not.
There is only one true definition of junk food: it is food favoured by children, and bought by parents in lower income groups, which is, for the time being, considered unfashionable by people in higher income groups.
According to Guy’s Hospital Dental School researchers (Independent, 24 Aug 93), fruit juice might be worse for children’s teeth than fizzy drinks such as cola; it contains almost as much sugar, and far more acid.
In 1991, the Medical Research Council was reportedly “puzzled” after a ten-year study by its epidemiology unit showed that men who eat butter have half the heart attack risk of men who eat polyunsaturated margarines, and that those who drink more than a pint of milk a day are eight times less likely to suffer heart attacks than those who don’t drink milk. (Independent, 27 Feb 91; The Vegan, Summer 91). The director of the study told people not to change their healthy eating habits: “We have no explanation for these findings but it would be naive to link heart disease to a single cause.” (Yes, wouldn't it, though? I couldn't agree more. I’ve just spent 60-odd pages saying precisely that.)
When the data support the orthodoxy they are reliable; when they don’t, they aren't. That is the ruling of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that is final. Government scientists and the British Heart Foundation urged people to be “wary” of the findings; the MRC distanced itself from the whole study.
The idea that some foods (not even diets, but individual edibles in isolation) are “good for you” and some are “bad for you” is so patently infantile, so primitively mystical and superstitious, and simplistic, that it hardly seems worth arguing against. It is the kind of tiny idea which you would think could only appeal to readers of women’s magazines who are bored with astrology, or are too busy to take up Falangism.
One step up from there - one small step, it must be said, for barmpotkind - is the aptly-described “miracle meal,” designed by scientists (who preferred to call it a “polymeal”) and reported in the Daily Mirror (17 Dec 04) under the headline “EAT THIS FOOD AND LIVE 6 MORE YEARS.”
Each of the ingredients (mackerel, pumpkin, red wine; the usual) is “known to be beneficial” but together they form “a special cocktail of prevention.” This is an old idea: many people know that praying to a number of saints - or even a jumble of overlapping gods - is more likely to be effective than putting all your hopes in one of them.
As well as being a miracle, this healthianity equivalent of the sacrament is also a magic potion in the most traditional way. Again, you think I am exaggerating - a thing I never do - but again, I will brilliantly pull the smug out from under your feet by revealing that the scientists who devised the miracle meal “warn that without all the items taken together” the magic won’t work.
If these unnamed scientists really exist, and really are scientists, they can't possibly believe this, can they? That eating a holy meal (the blood, to coin a phrase, and the body) four times a week will have a measurable and predictable effect on the longevity of actual individuals? No, they must be aware at some level that real life studies repeatedly show the effects of “healthy lifestyles” as being either neutral or negative; that validation comes only from the imaginative, fuzzy, interpretation-driven world of averages and estimates - dozens of them, unconnected each to the other - chopped about and blended to produce a single figure which has no proper meaning even within statistics, let alone in the material world. There is no reason on earth to believe that you, personally, with your particular habits, exposures, strengths and weaknesses, and predispositions, will live six years longer because you ate the magic miracle meal. And even if you did, how would anyone ever know? How could such a thing ever be measured? And if a thing can’t be measured, what is the point of measuring it?
This is perhaps the most dishearteningly religious image in the whole of healthianity (and fittingly it is one which lies at the very fundament of the business): the idea that the gods keep a book, in which the death-day of each of us is pencilled in. By avoiding sin, by performing rituals of self-abasement, by making sacrifices, we can extend our allotted time. Or - by our wickedness and weakness of will - we can move it forward. It’s only written in pencil, remember.
There isn’t such a book. I thought we all grasped that, a couple of centuries ago? You cannot have six years added on to your allotted time, because there is no allotted time! This sounds comically obvious, but please spend a few minutes later on this afternoon thinking about it. Please. Because if you accept that it is true - and I’m assuming for the sake of politeness that you do - then this entire central column of healthness collapses. They cannot tell you how long you've got, so they can’t tell you how much longer you can get. By the time they can tell you how long you've got, it’s too late: don’t start any long books, as young doctors long to say.
Experts were baffled - not to say annoyed - when an official study showed that modern children were very well nourished even though they eat “the wrong food” (ie, food they enjoy). (Independent, 23 Mar 95).
Then there was the embarrassing study, published in 1994, in arguably the world’s most antismoking country, Australia. It was published, in fact, by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and called 1989-90 National Health Survey: Lifestyle and Health Australia.
It divided its subjects into three groups - smokers, non-smokers and ex-smokers - and found that the smokers were healthiest by almost every measurement. (Unhealthiest in almost all were the ex-smokers, adding fuel to the idea that giving up might be harmful in itself; but it could just as easily be that they gave up smoking because they were ill). Smokers had the lowest levels of all illnesses other than bronchitis and emphysema, including long-term illnesses; lowest levels specifically of tumours, high cholesterol, hypertension, heart disease, and being overweight.
The preface to the report noted “Some care should be taken in interpreting the associations between lifestyle factors and health status described in this publication. Data from the survey should not be interpreted as proof of causal relationships.” Ex-bloody-actly! Well said. But why does that caution only apply when the data contradict the orthodoxy?
(What? You've never heard of this heretical document before? Well, no-one expects the Passive Inquisition, do they?)
These are perfect examples of Charles Fort’s “damned data” - they don't fit so they must be rejected; the data themselves are sinful.
A study in Finland which seemed to show that men following low fat diets and “healthy lifestyles” had a higher death risk than those who did not change their habits was described as “raising more questions than it answers.” (Independent, 23 Dec 91).
Time for more from the good old World Health Organisation, I think. The WHO’s “Monica” project was by a long way the largest and longest medical study ever conducted on earth, and it found that there was “no link at all” between smoking or cholesterol and heart disease. (Independent, 15 Sep 98). Gloriously, a defender of the faith, the medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said: “The unexpected findings in no way detract from the current health messages, such as stopping smoking and eating less fatty food.”
Yes they do, you cock! “Detract”? They directly contradict them! Unless, of course, your “current health messages” are not medical, but religious advice.
This gargantuan mega-study embarrassingly found that in some areas where smoking had declined, heart disease rates rose. Guess where? Areas of high poverty.
Another leading heart disease academic explained the report away thusly: “If you get eaten by a crocodile when you are expecting lions and tigers it does not mean that big cats have rubber teeth.” Doesn't he understand what “no link” means? Doesn't he understand that science means abandoning or modifying your favourite theories in the face of new evidence, no matter how much it hurts? One of the chief organisers of the study, equally unimpressed by his own findings, said that if they had found a perfect correlation between smoking/cholesterol and heart disease it “would have made the subject of heart disease rather boring.” (Independent, 1 Sep 98).
(A significant minority of experts believe that heart disease is caused by a virus, which would better explain its puzzlingly epidemic nature than would the crudely statisticological ‘smoking and fatty foods’ theory. The same goes for obesity; human adenoviruses Ad-5, Ad-36, and Ad-37 have been shown to cause obesity in other animals, and Ad-36 has been “associated” with human obesity. This means that obesity might be contagious - it could be “caught like a cold,” which would help to explain its tendency to be geographically concentrated. A researcher from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, whose findings were published in the American Journal of Physiology, said that “With the exception of infectious diseases, no other chronic disease in history has spread so rapidly. The nearly simultaneous increase in obesity in most countries is difficult to explain by changes in food intake and exercise alone.” [Daily Telegraph, 31 Jan 06].)
You might not know this - the official advice on how many eggs you should eat a week and how many pints you should drink and how many portions of fruit and so on; these figures vary depending on what country you live in.
Now, the excuse for this generally is that different groups of scientists come to different conclusions - which is fair enough, but does rather destroy the basis of the whole business. A more likely explanation is that different lobbying groups in different countries have different amounts of money and influence: both pro and anti groups; people who make their living frightening us about cholesterol, as well as those who make their living selling us products which have been identified as containing cholesterol. In other words, those “five a day” recommendations are arrived at according to the shifting balance of power between intra-class forces.
A professor from the Royal Free, writing in the British Medical Journal, analysed all the trials in which numberless thousands of middle-aged people had adopted officially healthy diets - and found the effect on their risk of heart disease to be “insignificant.” (Sunday Telegraph, 3 Aug 99). Did this prompt doctors and politicians and civil servants and health campaigners to admit that they were wrong, and stop spending billions of pounds and millions of hours on begging and bullying people into taking up regimens which, it was now known for sure, were entirely pointless? Oh, why do you annoy me with such idiotic questions, to which you already know the answer; do you think it cute?
The longstanding folk belief that personality directly influences life expectancy and likelihood of contracting certain medical conditions has been confirmed by numerous clinical studies in the last decade (Independent, 14 Jun 04). Fear of new experiences, introversion, shyness, and above all pessimism have been shown - according to the researchers - to directly shorten lives. Both statistical and “mechanical” evidence is now available for this; to a large extent, the physical way this works is now understood. People who are afraid of getting ill are more likely to get ill - so continually telling smokers that smoking will kill them will in fact cause a certain number of them to die.
Rather importantly, the beneficial effects of optimism do not depend on whether the optimism is well-founded; people who think “Why worry? It’ll never happen to me” are, to some extent, correct. Not worrying about your health, according to a number of major studies conducted recently, is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. A crucial difference between pessimists and optimists (in this context) seems to be that when something goes wrong in their lives, optimists blame outside forces - pessimists blame themselves (as all religions, including healthianity, have taught them).
A medical survey of centenarians in Britain found that mental attitude and enjoying their working lives were the main factors in their longevity; whether or not they smoked and drank were “not factors.” (Daily Telegraph, 19 Jun 97).
“A happy life predicates a long life, and the effect is about as strong as whether one does or doesn't smoke,” says Professor Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University, the world's leading expert on the medical effects of happiness. (Independent, 3 Jan 05).
“Being single is as bad for you as smoking - or worse.” (Independent on Sunday, 29 Aug 04). This finding came from a 10-year survey of 10,000 Britons. Increasing working hours and working years (especially for women) leaves many more single or separated. Or dead.
It’s now accepted by all medical authorities that dieting is not only one of the main causes of obesity, but also that it is harmful to mental and physical health. I suggest that the endless, guilt-ridden struggle to give up smoking is one of the main causes of “addiction,” and - who knows? - one of the main causes of cancer and heart disease, as well as contributing to depression, anxiety, suicide and so on. It is now established that dieting is more dangerous than being overweight; perhaps the same might be true of endlessly trying and failing to break the cigarette habit.
People die of unhappiness and fear, not of smoking.
Having an active social life adds seven years to your life - giving up smoking adds three. (Daily Mirror, 4 Dec 04). But how can you have an active social life, when working hours are extended, public transport is run down, and places of public gathering are undermined by smoking bans? (Even before the smoking ban in England, the Campaign for Real Ale warned that an average of 56 British pubs were closing for good every month. [Western Daily Press, 14 Feb 07].)
A study showed that “being fed up can be as bad for your heart as smoking a packet of fags a day.” Those with “high levels of despair” had a 20% increased risk of hardening of the arteries. (The Mirror, 26 Aug 97). Note how smoking is the unit of currency against which all health risks are measured.
Research conducted at the University of Hull showed that feeling guilty about your pleasures (the researcher actually used the word “sins”) can damage your health, by reducing your levels of immunoglobulin A, which damages your immune system. The immunologist in charge of the research said this “provided empirical support of the increasingly held notion that pleasures are good and guilt is bad, for health.” (Daily Telegraph, 30 Mar 98; Independent, 17 Apr 00). The head of this research said: “The higher the levels of guilt, the more illness people experienced.”
Shouldn't we at least be investigating the possibility that people who try to give up, or are made to feel guilty about, moderate smoking are doing more harm to their health than if they simply carried on? Or rather: if healthianity were about improving people’s health, rather than saving their souls, wouldn't such research have priority?
When a cure is more harmful than the thing it cures, we can be sure that we are in the realm of religion, not medicine.
A medical anthropologist warned that health campaigns “run the risk of producing mass scepticism,” because they do not match people’s own experience; his research showed that most people knew someone who smoked and ate fatty food and so on and lived to be 90; and someone who lived an officially healthy life and dropped dead of a heart attack when young, slim and fit. He argued that this mismatch is because some people are more disposed to illness than others, and the factors are complex, but rather than try to explain complexities, campaigners “opted for a form of worthy dishonesty.” (Independent, 22 Aug 90). The end justifies the means, in other words, and many antismoke campaigners admit this; what they can’t admit, is that the end itself may be as false as the means.
For years, senior voices in the hospital system in Britain and elsewhere have warned that thousands of patients suffer unnecessarily because morphine (a superb medicine, when properly used) is under-prescribed (especially for terminal patients), because of the demonisation of all narcotics, which has infected even doctors. Morphine, of course, is an enjoyable drug ...
The head teacher of St Gregory’s School in Bath announced a “zero-tolerance” policy against smoking. (Bath Times, 17 Feb 05). Students (even those over the legal minimum age for smoking) could be suspended from school for five days for a first offence, ten days for a second offence, and fifteen days for a third. After that, they could be expelled. “The punishment extends to non-smoking pupils seen in the company of smokers,” (presumably because of the doctrine of the Contagion of Sin which we encounter so often amongst antismokers).
Some parents were reportedly worried about the policy, fearing that it would damage their children’s education. Don’t they understand? Only smoking counts! Nothing else exists! Still, presumably while these expelled kids are at home all day, not being educated, they’ll be able to smoke all they like.
Post-flight infections have become more common since the banning of smoking on aeroplanes; the bans were introduced, it is generally said, to allow the airlines to save money on air conditioning, and this is thought to be why the germs are thriving. (Daily Telegraph, 26 Jan 07). I think there was another reason for stopping people smoking on flights: it’s because the fliers believe that through ritually exorcising the smoke demon they will appease the gods of the air, and thus protect their fragile craft on its impudently unnatural journey, from the real threats of terrorism, engine failure and fatal weather. That’s what I think.
Patients caught smoking outside hospitals - outside! - can be discharged (expelled, that means) under government legislation aimed at a total smoking ban on all hospital grounds. Patients will be offered nicotine patches and gum, and “older person” signs would be erected around hospitals to try and reduce the number of frail patients expected to be injured or killed crossing busy roads for a smoke. (Independent on Sunday, 22 May 05).
(Can antismoking itself be seen as a form of neurosis, in a clinical sense? To be morbidly obsessed with something which should be of little importance - can that be healthy?)
Professor John West, who is “professor of tobacco studies” at University College London, argues that some people are genetically predisposed to find smoking addictive. To those who struggle to give up, he recommends “you should treat your condition as a chronic condition and keep trying and keep medicating yourself with patches or gum, which is all we have at the moment. Try to accept that you are in it for the long haul.” (Independent, 8 Mar 05). A lifetime of guilt and stress and struggle, of self-medication with powerful drugs - can you imagine what future generations will think of this medical advice? Can you imagine the damage that might do to someone’s mental, emotional and physical health? Which is worse for you - stress or smoking? Shouldn't we find out?
Under England’s 2007 smoking restriction laws, it is illegal for mental patients to smoke in their hospitals - even if they are sectioned, and therefore legally unable to leave. Virtually all in-patients of mental hospitals chain-smoke. How many mentally ill people will die as a result of having their most effective medicine withdrawn? How many will abscond from treatment, and subsequently die? How many staff will be assaulted, or even killed, now that they are legally responsible for enforcing smoking bans? We can’t know - but we can say for certain that it is rather more than those whose lives might be saved by not being exposed to secondary smoking.
“Children as young as 12 could be given nicotine patches and gum in attempts to stop them smoking. The government said labels recommending that the products are not used by 12-18-year-olds, pregnant and breast-feeding women, will be removed from packs.” (Daily Telegraph, 30 Dec 05). I imagine the labels were put there in the first place for a reason; but, you know, only smoking counts.
Patients in intensive care who are given “nicotine replacement therapy” (NRT) might be at greater risk of death than those patients who are not given NRT, according to a paper presented to the American College of Chest Physicians. (NewScientist.com, 25 Oct 06).
Scientists in the US are “fast-tracking” a vaccine against smoking (New York Times, 16 Jul 06), which would work by stimulating the production of antibodies which would prevent nicotine molecules from reaching the brain; in other words, it’s a jab against pleasure. How long until the injection becomes compulsory? How long before the health side-effects become known? And how many billions of dollars will the jab-makers make from shoving drugs into peoples’ blood to break them of a mere habit?
“Thousands of smokers were yesterday banned from taking antismoking drug Zyban ... The move, by the Medicines Control Agency, came after 37 people died and 5,352 reported bad reactions since Zyban came into use in the UK in June last year.” (The Mirror, 1 June 01).
A new drug which helps people give up smoking and undergo weight loss at the same time - by interfering with the “pathways associated with pleasure” in the brain - was warmly welcomed by health experts. (Independent, 10 Mar 04). And shareholders in drugs companies, no doubt, and religious fundamentalists, and totalitarian governments. The drug was predicted to be the “next pharmaceutical industry blockbuster.” An anti-obesity crusader said that if the drug could let people give up smoking without gaining weight “That could be its unique selling point.” An expert in antismoking said: “Given how obesity is galloping away it must have a potentially really big market.” When they don’t speak the language of the pulpit, antismokers speak the language of the stock exchange.
All right, three things: do you want pharmaceutical multinationals making drugs which can stop you feeling pleasure in a specific act or substance? Thinking of governments you have known, are you 100% confident that such treatments will always be voluntary and will always be used for good purposes? And do you believe that taking such drugs is likely to be better for your long-term health, and/or safer, than smoking or eating chips?
A drug company has come up with a vaccine to make children immune to the pleasure of smoking, thus preventing them acquiring the habit; it is in the form of a drug injected into the children. An addiction expert welcomed the development, saying it should first be used on people trying to give up smoking, before “we can move on to other groups, whether smokers or non-smokers.” (Daily Mirror, 21 Jan 04).
Even better: noting that some people who suffer brain damage are able to give up smoking very easily, having failed previously, antismoking academics speculated that they might be close to finding “a surgical cure for smoking,” by implanting “stimulation electrodes” in patients to precisely mimic the helpful brain damage. (Daily Telegraph, 26 Jan 07).
In July 2000, 17-year-old Mario Castellano was riding a motor-scooter but not wearing a helmet, as required by law. When he failed to obey a police order to stop, he was shot in the back by a policeman (who was later acquitted of murder). He was shot dead to protect his health. (http://web.amnesty.org/report2005/ita-summary-eng).
The cures of phantom conditions can cause real ones. Millions of people in Britain take statins - drugs which supposedly protect them from heart attacks and strokes by lowering their cholesterol levels. Now scientists in the US have discovered that patients with low levels of LDL (“bad cholesterol,” which is its official, religiose name) are more than three times as likely to get Parkinson’s than people with high levels. This is only an association, not a causal link, and is to be investigated further. (Daily Telegraph, 15 Jan 07).
Dr Nixon of Charing Cross Hospital was known as a maverick in cardiology; he believed that most heart problems (and most other illnesses) were caused by overwhelming exhaustion. Our systems simply can’t stand the endless stress of working non-stop and having to be successful all the time. (Independent, 30 Apr 91). He reckoned that mere “minor risk factors” like smoking are treated as “prime movers,” which they're not. There are about 200 generally accepted heart attack risk factors, and Nixon claimed that most people who suffer heart attacks don't have any of them. In his view, the reason smoking and drinking appear to be statistical risk factors is because added stress makes us smoke and drink more; suddenly adapting your lifestyle according to health advice can be dangerous - it can be the final straw for an overloaded system, and precipitate a heart attack.
Only the views of a maverick, of course, and I daresay there’s nothing in it ... but, just a thought: has anyone ever tried to discover how many people have heart attacks immediately after giving up smoking? And if not - why not?
It is common in writings of this sort to start or finish with a disclaimer; to say that of course the author does not wish to encourage anyone to smoke, that he doesn't happen to smoke himself, that he finds it a dirty habit but that he believes it essential to stand up for libertarian principles.
I am not a libertarian, of any kind. I stand always for the co-operative against the private enterprise, for the common need against the individual whim, and for collective liberty, when a choice must be made, before personal freedom.
My purpose is to defend science - which really needs someone better equipped than me to defend it, someone who has an O Level, possibly, but which will have to make do with me just for the moment - against superstition; to defend the material world against the ideal; and to defend smoking, which I wholeheartedly recommend. I enjoy it and it does me good. (You? I’ve no idea.) I consider smoking to be enjoyable, and harmless to others, and I am of the opinion that anything which is enjoyable without harming others is of immense benefit to physical, mental, emotional and social health. I do indeed advocate smoking, but more than smoking I advocate ceaseless and ruthless war on mysticism, hysteria, and persecution. Illnesses are not punishments sent by god for the very good and complete reason that there is no god.
I began writing this ... this thing, more than twenty years ago, and did so, I suppose, believing as most smokers then did that, yes, smoking was probably quite injurious to quite a lot of people, but that really we shouldn’t overreact to that fact. I have to say, having read all that I've read throughout those years, that I am now far from convinced that tobacco is bad for you - or that it’s not good for you. I suspect it can be both, as can everything else, depending on this, and depending also on that.
Baudelaire said: “If wine disappeared from human production, I believe there would be, in the health and intellect of the planet, a void, a deficiency far more terrible than all the excess and deviations for which wine is made responsible.” How sure are you that the same is not true of tobacco?
“A research study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health argues that the cost to the health service of dealing with poor dietary habits is much higher than the annual cost of smoking.” You gave up smoking and you thought they’d leave you alone? No: now they’ve smelt blood.
There will always be something new that’s your fault. No matter how much you give them they will always demand more. If every one of us did exactly what they tell us to do from tomorrow, they would come up with a new list of demands. The beast is never finally fed.
There is an essential, and quite simple, philosophical difference in play here, and it should not be overlooked. All humans, I suspect, are born (or else very early in their lives, begin) leaning towards one or other of these two poles: the merry life, even if short, vs. the long life, at all costs. Some are at one extreme or the other, most are somewhere between, but all are identifiably one or the other.
I don’t suppose it is possible to change this, it's not voluntary, it’s something you are, rather than something you choose to be (and it would be absurd to claim to know which of these positions is the ‘correct’ one). For that reason it seems almost impossible for the one to understand the other - empathy is impossible. We can’t seem to talk to each other across this divide, because we belong to different species.
To those who take the merry view, the old proverb “If you abstain, you die in good health” is unanswerable: if you deny yourself enjoyments in order to maintain good health, you will die anyway, so you have gained nothing. You can’t take it with you when you go - that applies to health as much as to money.
Those who favour longevity, however, will also respond to “If you abstain, you die in good health” with a cry of “Exactly!” It confirms their belief, too: certainly they’d rather die in good health than in bad health. Who wouldn’t?
(I am inclined to believe - without any proof, let me say at once - that people who achieve creatively in any field, including the arts or enterprise or statesmanship or insurrection, are likely to be smokers; in outlook, even if not in habit. That they are likely to fall on that side of the divide, those who want to get the most out of life rather than the most of life.)
If I am right, that this gap between our tribes is unbridgeable, then it makes the matter of method all the more important: we can’t agree on merry over long, or long over merry, but we can surely get along if we agree on rationality over faith.
You might say that whatever the lunacies of the antismoking movement, whatever their insanely twisted motives, does it matter? If stopping people smoking is a desirable end, as many people think it is, then it doesn’t matter too much how you get there, and who gets you there.
Fair enough; I will only remind you that whenever superstition determines public policy, the inevitable result is cruelty. And there is nothing human beings are capable of which is worse than cruelty.
A true story, as it was given to me: a man stumbled away from his young wife’s deathbed, staggered his way out of the automatic doors of the hospital, and in the partial shelter of an awning struggled against the driving rain to light a cigarette. A passing nurse, who knew who he was and knew his situation, ordered him to put his cigarette out, taking time to give him a few harsh words on the wickedness of smoking in a hospital. Newly alone, in what has never been a very friendly universe at the best of times, he was denied the smallest of comforts against the worst of sufferings in the name of bogus science, and for the sake of quasi-religion. I feel it would be not only impossible, but also improper, to describe such an act of cruelty without using the word evil.
Copyright Mat Coward 2007.