Butt out – social ostracism is working
I just don’t have the willpower. I try and I try, but I can’t seem to get the habit. My smoking problem is that I simply can’t take it up. Every time we go away, I pack this pathetic cigar, and every time I imagine myself firing it up at the end of dinner, and having a damn good smoke. I see myself as a more humane version of Saddam, glorying in my Cohiba, savouring the aroma of the world’s finest tobacco, rolled on the thighs of whatever virgins there are left in Havana.
And then dinner comes to its close. The crickets are crying triumphantly. The pousse-café is drained and it is time for the combustion and inhalation of this stonking great courgette. I ease it out of its case, and pinch it delicately between forefinger and thumb. I sniff one end. I sniff the other end. I take out my box of England’s Glory (also specially packed), and prepare to strike a match.
And then what happens? I don’t know. I am overcome by some sort of akrasia, a weakness of will. Instead of striking that match, I find myself using it to pick my teeth, and the cigar is slipped quietly back into its silo, ready for the next holiday, so that it is drier than a relic from Tutankhamun’s tomb.
What is it with me and smoking? I am afraid it is partly a sense of guilt. The trouble with smoking is that it is not popular, and children in particular seem to be against it. There is a strident, ideological edge to their denunciations, rather like the pre-pubescent cadres of the Khmer Rouge. After a while their moralising is enough to drive the staunchest libertarian to throw in the towel and go for the whisky.
Then I have this dreadful politically correct homunculus that squats somewhere in my limbic pathways. He is a miserable sod, this daemon, but he knows his stuff. As soon as I reach for that cigar, I can feel him tapping his feet and reminding me that 114,000 smokers are killed every year by smoking. “One person in four dies from cancer,” this creep reminds me, and he goes on to point out that lung cancer is especially nasty.
That, I am ashamed to say, is what stops me from smoking: a combination of social pressure and a pathetic terror of death – and I can imagine the snorts of derision from the serious smokers of this world as they read this. Wimp! they say. Milquetoast! Call yourself a freedom-lover! Call yourself a risk-taker! I hang my head before these brave souls. That is why I want now to reassure all smokers that in one way I am on their side. It is precisely my continued failure to take up smoking that leads me to oppose a ban on smoking in public places.
Consider what happens to my will – my decision-making procedures – in that terrible moment between picking up the cigar and putting it down again. On the one hand I want nicotine. I want that life-enhancing buzz, and the luxurious sensation of smoke dribbling down from one’s nostrils. I want that slow spread of pleasure through my brain-pan. On the other hand, I don’t want to be a nuisance, and I don’t want to die, and I am afraid the second set of desires beats the first set, more or less every time. By a combination of guilt, and the unforgettable picture I once saw of a smoker’s lung (imagine a cricket ball made of stilton), I have been socialised into becoming a non-smoker.
In other words, I have exercised a reasoned choice, and across the country people are doing the same in ever-growing numbers. The habit has declined hugely in the past 30 years, from roughly half the population in 1974, to roughly a quarter today; and that change in the numbers means, of course, that the majority is now in a perfect position to tyrannise the minority.
It is extremely difficult, statistically, to contract a cancer from passive smoking – far more difficult than contracting HIV, and no one is going to ban HIV sufferers from having sex. But the general disapproval of smoking is so intense that the trumped-up fears of passive smoking are being used to drive smokers into ever tinier reservations, like poor, deluded redskins bullied from their ancestral hunting grounds. Airlines, hotels, railways, cinemas, pubs, even JD Wetherspoon, has now banned smoking, and I have to admit that I don’t entirely regret it. As soon as you go into a non-smoking pub, you notice the improvement in air quality. The change is happening, and the persecution of smokers seems unstoppable.
The question, therefore, is why does Labour have to legislate, to accomplish that which is already being accomplished by the market? Why does the law have to scurry in this cowardly way to ban that which is already on the way to complete ostracism? A ban on smoking in public places would not only take away discretion from the many establishments that want a smoking clientele – people who want to enjoy a legal substance in perfect understanding of the risks. Above all, a ban on smoking in public places substitutes the discretion of the state for the individual will, in a way that is morally sapping.
If this stuff is legal, then people should be left to make up their minds. They have the facts. We can all read the cartons. If there is one thing wrong with us all these days, it is that we are so mollycoddled, airbagged and swaddled with regulations and protections that we have lost any proper understanding of risk. As long as tobacco is legal, people should be free to balance the pleasures and dangers themselves, as I do with my unsmoked Cohiba.
The slow strangulation of smoking is being accomplished by the millions of decisions of society at large. We don’t need the state to butt in, not least because one day soon I might decide to have a peaceful smoke after lunch in my office, and I want that freedom, too.