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The war on smoking is a war on individual freedom

From last Saturday's Telegraph:

Manjib, Syria, the men are cutting their beards. The women are smoking cigarettes and uncovering their faces. Newly liberated from the rule of Isil, they’re expressing the most basic freedom a human can possess: control over their own bodies. These are the freedoms the West holds dear. This is what we stand for: the freedom of each person to make decisions for themselves ...

The article, by Juliet Samuel, went on to address the decision to ban the use of the burkini - a head to foot swimming costume worn mostly by Muslim women - on the beaches of Cannes and another resort in France, Villeneuve-Loubet.

According to Samuel (and I couldn't agree more), "The real enemies of freedom are not the burkini-wearers but the politicians who want to ban them."

But let's address her initial point:

The women are smoking cigarettes ... Newly liberated from the rule of Isil, they’re expressing the most basic freedom a human can possess: control over their own bodies. These are the freedoms the West holds dear.

If only that were true. The West may not kill or torture people for smoking (not yet, anyway!) but the suggestion it's a freedom "the West holds dear" is no longer true, sadly.

I'm not suggesting governments should actively encourage habits that are potentially harmful but if it's legal the state's role in a free society is to educate then allow people to make our own informed choices without being punished for making choices the state doesn't approve of.

Instead, led by America, Australia, Canada, the UK and Ireland (spot the connection?), governments and local authorities in the West have spent the past two decades banning or severely restricting smoking in a variety of public places.

Smoking in enclosed public places is now prohibited in several Western countries and there is a growing move towards outdoor smoking bans.

Smokers have been taxed to the hilt, far in excess of what it allegedly costs the state to treat smoking-related diseases.

In some countries the product has been hidden behind shutters and sliding doors while packs and pouches are emblazoned with gory health warnings designed to shock and repulse.

Simultaneously the public has been encouraged to regard smoking as a dirty or disgusting habit ("If you smoke, you stink" according to one publicly-funded campaign).

Does that sound like a freedom "the West holds dear"?

At the heart of these initiatives is a fundamental desire to denormalise a legal product and stigmatise the consumer. Worse, anti-smoking campaigns are often driven by a deliberate policy of hate and fear.

How has the public responded? Well, although relatively few people are actively anti-smoking (and most of them are employed by the state or third sector 'charities'), it's also true that the number of people and organisations committed to defending smokers is painfully small.

Long ago I wrote to Liberty, on behalf of Forest, inviting them to condemn discrimination against smokers. I received a polite brush-off, the gist of which was "in the overall scheme of things smokers' rights are simply not that important".

I wasn't surprised. Many people profess to be civil libertarians or socially liberal but only a handful speak up for smokers. Ditto economic liberals despite strong arguments for letting the market decide

I know this because Forest monitors all these groups across a range of platforms (including social media) and the number of self-proclaimed liberals who defend smoking and oppose anti-smoking legislation is depressingly small, believe me.

Likewise I've lost count of the number of ex-smoking vapers who protest they're not anti-smoking yet remain mute when smoking is under the cosh. When challenged they respond, "It's not our battle." Alternatively they recycle any anti-smoking nonsense that furthers their own cause.

Of course the careers of many pro-vaping advocates were built on the war on tobacco so their refusal to stand up for smokers is no surprise. As far as they're concerned smokers are collateral damage in the unrelenting march towards a brave new smoke free world.

(It makes me laugh when I see some of them lauded as heroes of the vaping movement. Every smoking ban that includes the use of e-cigarettes is directly attributable to the anti-smoking policies those very same people actively campaigned for and still endorse.)

For me defending smoking (and smokers) is the litmus test of a genuinely liberal mind. It scores points on so many levels I hardly know where to start.

The most important perhaps is that genuine liberals are prepared to defend activities they themselves don't engage in and may even disapprove of.

Defending smoking means challenging the current orthodoxy that the world would be a better place without it.

If you're a smoker it also means accepting personal responsibility for your decision to smoke and not using the 'victim' or addiction card.

For example, one of the things that annoys me most about some ex-smoking vapers is the claim, repeated ad nauseum, that restrictions on vaping or vaping products will "force" them back to smoking.

I heard it again this week in Australia where vapers were protesting against regulations banning the sale of e-cigarettes containing nicotine. It's an absurd policy but, for heaven's sake, if you don't want to smoke, don't smoke. No-one's forcing you light up. Get a grip.

Bleating that restrictions on e-cigarettes will "force" you back to smoking plays into the hands of those who want to portray smokers (and vapers) as pathetic, weak-willed addicts desperate for their next fix - unless government steps in to 'save' them.

A few years ago I was interviewed for a feature in the Independent, Is smoking still defensible?. Nick Duerden, a freelance journalist, gave us a decent hearing, I thought.

As well as Forest Nick wanted to speak to some of our supporters so I put him in touch with David Hockney, Joe Jackson and Ronald (now Sir Ronald) Harwood.

All three were quoted but I would have struggled to name many more with a similar public profile because when it comes to defending smoking most people don't want to know. Even smokers have been cowed into submission.

So I'll ask this. Who do you identify with - the women in Manjib, Syria, celebrating the freedom to smoke, or public health campaigners who want to deny you that freedom in the name of ... what, exactly?

I don't doubt that some people are addicted to smoking and want to quit. I'm equally convinced however that as an expression of individual freedom smoking is hard to beat.

I also think the world would be a poorer, less diverse place without smoking but, hey, I'm just a tobacco industry stooge with no mind of my own.

And on that bombshell I will leave you for a week or so.

Tonight I'm having dinner aboard the Queen Victoria in the port of Venice. At ten o'clock local time we'll set sail for Croatia with subsequent stops including Crete, Albania (a late replacement for Turkey!) and Greece.

Do post a comment or two while I'm away. Oh, and feel free to go off topic. The good news is, I won't be here to stop you!

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Reader Comments (8)

A good post, Simon. You just went up a couple of notches in my estimation. Because it's not just about smoking per se, it's about self-determination. It's about freedom of choice. It's about not being under the yoke of ignorant zealots.

Enjoy your cruise, and if you land in Corfu, feel free to email me and I'll take you to a really good, traditional eatery in Corfu town. Greek food as it should be, not the pre-cooked, frozen, tourist tat.

Saturday, August 20, 2016 at 20:36 | Unregistered Commenternisakiman

“For me defending smoking (and smokers) is the litmus test of a genuinely liberal mind. It scores points on so many levels I hardly know where to start.”

Ditto what Nika said (well, not the Corfu bit – sadly I don’t live there!). But your description of the smoking issue being a “litmus test” has become increasingly true as time has gone on. The more smoking, and smokers, are increasingly singled out as legitimate – nay, State-supported - targets for bullying and persecutory behaviour, the harder it becomes to believe anyone whose response to these actions is a deafening silence, when they proudly boast of their “libertarian” attitudes.

I, too, joined Liberty for a short while some years ago in the hope that – as the primary organisation in the UK claiming to care about liberty and personal freedoms – they of all people might be the ones who could see the dangerous precedent that all number of anti-smoking regulations, both current and proposed, might set in terms of our overall freedom to live our lives as we chose, whether that meant adopting government-advised forms of behaviour or not. But no. In all the literature which they sent me (and there was lots of it), there was nothing - absolutely nothing - about the encroachment into people’s personal lives of the ever-expanding State “control” mechanism, particularly the onerous Public Health movement. All of their campaigns focused on populist, headline-grabbing, then-politically-correct issues such as the police, a possible Bill of Rights, and press freedom. Similarly, a quick glance at their website today indicates the same disappointing obsession with the Hot Topics of the day – refugees, immigration and gay marriage feature prominently amongst their current and recent campaigns (although, oddly enough, the inability for heterosexual couples to enter into a Civil Partnership is conveniently not mentioned). It seemed that, to paraphrase the old saying, Liberty were so busy looking at the wood that they’d completely forgotten that it was comprised of individual trees – and in so doing had totally failed to notice that one of those trees had got very, very big indeed. And, it seems, they still haven’t noticed, or they have, but they don’t care. Needless to say, I didn’t renew my membership, at which point I received a little card asking me why not. I didn’t bother answering. If they needed me, an untrained member of the public, to point out a massive threat, right on their doorstep, because they hadn’t noticed it, then they weren’t an organisation that I intended to waste any kind of time or (more) money on. If nothing else, I can spot an organisation which has lost touch with its original roots from ten miles away, and I knew for certain that Liberty was one such organisation almost from the moment I joined!

So, yes, smoking as a topic has indeed become a very accurate way of ascertaining how truly libertarian a person is. Slotting smoking, or smokers, or the smoking ban (whether one is a smoker or not) into any conversation these days and then noting the other persons’ response will tell you far more about them than just whether or not they object to the smell of tobacco smoke. Few people will ever admit to “being anti-smoking,” because, well, let’s be honest, the people who represent anti-smoking aren’t exactly the type of people that anyone wants to emulate or be thought of as similar to, are they? As someone once said, most of them come across as the kind of people who never get invited to parties. So most people will probably try and keep up a bit of an all-tolerant, all-accepting “front” at first, but they won’t be able to help giving themselves away. The telltale sign is what I call the Big But: “I don’t have a problem if people want to smoke, but ...” “I don’t agree with the smoking ban, but ...” “I think people should be allowed to smoke, but ...” “I’m not anti-smoking, but ...

As soon as you hear that “but,” you can be sure that you’re speaking to someone who would happily support restrictive and persecutory state regulations against any other group of people, too, given the right “persuasion” and the right “scientific evidence” – and, of course, the “protection” of government legislation – should any other group be similarly targeted. Which is, categorically, not libertarian, no matter how much such people might like to wishfully assign that label to themselves.

Sunday, August 21, 2016 at 2:39 | Unregistered CommenterMisty

Excellent post, Simon, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to make two points.

(1) Why do you keep using antismoker language by saying that smoking has been banned in 'enclosed public places'? One of our key arguments should be that they are not in fact 'public', when they are not supported by the taxpayer, and no one is forced to go in. They are PRIVATE businesses and should have property rights, and the right to set their own 'house rules' without government interference. And this should be repeated at every opportunity.

(2) While I completely agree with you about individual freedom, we are up against a perception - hammered home by many years of propaganda from 'respectable' sources - that smoking is so dangerous both to the smoker and others, that normal concepts of free choice do not apply. Smoking is seen as tantamount to both suicide and murder. These are crimes. You don't - or shouldn't - have the 'free choice' to commit them. The root of the problem is not intolerance and the denial of free choice; it is the junk science, lies and distortions of the antismoking movement. These people are (though I know you don't like the comparison) like the Nazis telling ordinary people it's OK to beat up Jews because it's been scientifically proven that they're inferior or some kind of threat. There will always be people willing and eager to go along with such an agenda. What's important is to show that the agenda is false and the people pushing it, corrupt. And this too should be repeated at every opportunity.

Sunday, August 21, 2016 at 9:56 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Jackson

Well said Simon. I agree. I have never promoted smoking but the freedom to use a legal product without harassment or abuse. Smoking is, has been, and always will be a measure of how free a country really is. If one is not free to use a legal product without harassment or intimidation from govt then how free is that country.

No one owns my body but me. I don't have to be near a smokerphobic if I had a choice. Sadly, I smoke now where I have been forced into the path of smoker haters outside.

Smoking, and the choices we make about our own lives, is a basic right.

Sunday, August 21, 2016 at 13:14 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

It's been said already, but it can't be overstated. This is a wonderfully insightful post that should be required reading for vaping activists.

Sunday, August 21, 2016 at 19:13 | Unregistered CommenterNate

Be interested to hear what the smoking situation is on the Queen Victoria Simon. Going on a cruise myself next week and a tad apprehensive about what it,s going to be like.

Sunday, August 21, 2016 at 21:38 | Unregistered CommenterSheila

Simon, you are a liberal thinker in the truest sense of the term. Many people claim to be so on the surface, but few can really own up to what it really means in reality.

Have a great trip/holiday:-)

Monday, August 22, 2016 at 4:20 | Unregistered Commenterjredheadgirl

People are dying; people are suffering; people are lonely. That is what successive governments continue to advocate based on the lies of the filthy lucre.

Do we live in a tolerant and liberal country? I don't think so. The government is happy to take my taxes and use that money to persecute me due to its naivety.

History will show them up for slaughtering their own.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 at 0:30 | Unregistered CommenterHelen D

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