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18 October 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Stub out that fact and extinguish that opinion
Read spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London) on the new moral orthodoxy on smoking.

by Mick Hume

I am an ex-heavyweight champion smoker. From my teens to my thirtieth birthday, I happily got through 20 to 40 Player's No 6 (the schoolboy's choice) a day. It may not have been a coincidence that, shortly after I gave up, they stopped making that brand of little coffin nails altogether. As a 'recovering' smoker, it is often assumed that I must hate anybody else indulging the dirty-but-delicious habit. True, other people's smoke gets in my eyes. But not as much as the self-righteous 'ban public smoking' crowd get up my nose.

Come round the back of the bike sheds, I want to tell you something that some in high places don't want you to hear. Did you know that there is another Weapon of Mass Destruction that we have been warned about for years, but which does not really exist? This illusory WMD goes by the name of Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) - passive smoking to you.

Yes, of course it is true that smoking tobacco can cause cancer and terrible illnesses. But the scientific case against passive smoking is far cloudier. Just about the only thing we know for certain is that inhaling other people's second-hand smoke can cause some irritation and the odd argument.

If you are wondering why the well-founded doubts about passive smoking are rarely aired, look at the extraordinary episode reported in The Times this week. The Royal Institution in London, a famous centre for scientific research and debate, has hired out its rooms to the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, for a one-day event entitled 'The Science of Environmental Tobacco Smoke'. As a result, the Royal Institution finds itself under heavy fire from anti-smoking crusaders and senior medics for whom any debate about the effects of passive smoking must be stubbed out before it starts. Professor John Britton, chairman of the Royal College of Physicians' tobacco advisory group, warned the Royal Institution that the tobacco manufacturers 'want to create the impression that Britain's top scientists are debating these issues, and there is no such debate'.

Not content with demanding a ban on smoking in public, it seems that the anti-ETS lobby wants a ban on talking about smoking in public too. Stub that fact out and extinguish that opinion immediately, my lad! This affair is a symptom of the spreading epidemic of tobacco intolerance - not a medical condition, but a new moral orthodoxy. It may soon be easier to smoke a joint than a cigarette on the street.

I detest any attempt to prostitute science for political or moralistic ends. Campaigners emphasise how Big Tobacco tried to bury the evidence that smoking causes cancer. Yet the Big Prohibition supporters can be accused of being cavalier with the facts today. They broadcast claims that passive smoking causes ill-health, while ignoring reports that suggest otherwise. In a recent letter to The Times, one over-excited professor of public health declared that research proves ' second-hand smoke is more dangerous than directly inhaled smoke'. Perhaps the healthy option is to leave that fuggy pub, and go smoke a few fags in the fresh air.

Far more than wanting smokers to stub their fags out, I want the illiberal liberals now running health policy to butt out of people's personal habits. This week, an unapologetic Tony Blair made clear that he will use the dodgy intelligence on ETS to launch a war against smoking in public. However, Mr Blair is still too soft on smokers for some tastes; one leading medical journal wants him to ban tobacco altogether. There is no 'right to smoke'; but that is no reason to tolerate smokers being burnt at the stake for infringing the new conformism.

Worst of all, I cannot stand the way that passive smoking has been turned into a metaphor for that mantra of modern miserabilism: 'Other people are ruining my life!' This was the spirit of morbid self-pity that Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, tried to tap into, arguing that restrictions on public smoking would ensure that 'nobody will be bullied into a lifestyle they do not wish to join.' If lighting up in a bar means bullying (grooming?) others into adopting a hostile lifestyle, who could object to banning such abuse?

The unhealthy assumption behind all this is that smokers are helpless addicts in need of drugs and psychotherapy to save them from themselves, while the rest of us are hapless victims in need of state protection from other people's putrid lifestyles. Never mind about passive smoking, how about launching a war against the cancer of passive living?

This article is republished from The Times (London)


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