‘When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.’ That quotation, often attributed to G.K. Chesterton, was, it seems, never actually said by him. It’s a pity, because I think it has turned out to be remarkably prescient.
The new religion sweeping the increasingly atheistic ‘advanced’ world is tobaccophobia. It started with its converts campaigning for a ban on tobacco advertising on television. When they got that, they called for a ban on advertising in newspapers and on billboards. Then a ban on smoking in enclosed public places. Then a ban on smoking in outside public places. Then a ban on tobacco packaging. And now, in Tasmania, comes the most extreme proposal yet: a total ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after the year 2000.
I don’t think the rise of the world’s newest religion can be explained away by benign concerns about our health from our superiors. I believe that it is all part of a dangerous new illiberalism where in the ‘advanced’ world we’re becoming much less free than we were 30 years ago.
What the elite are trying to do, it seems to me, is to fashion identikit people, all holding the same ‘acceptable’ opinions on a range of issues, all liking the same movies and the same music, all going to the same coffee shops. In this increasingly standardised world, where ‘bad habits’, ‘bad thoughts’ and ‘bad speech’ are officially proscribed, individuality and eccentricity — the very things which make human beings interesting — are being gradually erased.
Imagine a pipe-smoking lady politician like Millicent Fenwick, ‘the conscience of Congress’ in the US in the 1970s, achieving prominence today. Or a figure like Winston Churchill, hardly ever seen without a cigar, becoming British Prime Minister. Deciding whether or not we smoke and then making up our own mind what we smoke — be it a pipe, cigars, filter cigarettes or roll-ups — is one way we can express our individuality, and one our legislators are taking away from us.
While on a ferry boat in Amsterdam earlier this year, I saw a glamorous young lady wearing a long black dress come aboard, pushing her bicycle and smoking from a fabulously long cigarette holder. It raised my spirits to see someone brave enough to stand out from the crowd and do something different. Yet if the anti-smoking crusaders get their way and achieve their ultimate goal — a complete ban on smoking — the girl, who brought so much colour to the lives of those who saw her on that dull afternoon, would end up being carted off to the nearest police station.
It’s already getting like that in ‘advanced’ nations like Australia, the UK and the US. Smokers in these ‘free’ and ‘liberal’ societies are terrified to ask if they can light up at social gatherings, even those held outdoors. They’re herded onto the streets on chilly winter evenings to gather outside like lepers. Once a society is gripped by the religion of tobaccophobia it loses all sense of proportion. Former UK Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy opposed the Iraq war — but all hell broke lose when he was spotted on a train having a fag. If that great individualist Oscar Wilde returned to life today he’d be bemused that while his homosexuality no longer posed a problem, it would be his passion for cigarettes (‘A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?’) which would land him in serious trouble.
Part of the reason why the religion of tobaccophobia has made such inroads is that smokers and those who defend them feel obliged to go on the defensive when health issues are brought up. Smoking is clearly bad for the health, so anything that reduces the habit must be a good thing, the argument goes. But is it really as clear-cut as that? I’d strenuously challenge the assertion that a government war on smoking will actually improve our mental and physical health. It’s surely no coincidence that as tobaccophobes have gained ground, so the numbers of people taking solace in drug and alcohol abuse in ‘advanced countries’ has risen. My parents’ and grandparents’ generation didn’t pop pills or go binge-drinking when they felt under the cosh, they just got out their packet of Woodbines or reached for their pipes.
What smoking bans do is make our lives more boring. Smoking is more than just putting a piece of rolled tobacco in your mouth, lighting it and inhaling; it’s a whole rich culture which brings people together. The camaraderie of smoking is something I experienced when I moved to Hungary in the 1990s. When you went out with friends you were expected to put your ‘smokes’ on the table for everyone to share. It seemed that nearly everyone smoked. The woman in the post office had a cigarette in her mouth as she sold me stamps. The girl in the bookshop smoked as she escorted me to the English Language section. The tobacconist sold a glittering array of tobacco products and accessories. Again, what you smoked helped define you. In a smoke-filled bar in the old Jewish quarter of Budapest that would have had Ivan Dean throwing a right old wobbly, I befriended a charming Icelandic Marxist actress and her equally charming Portuguese-Angolan Marxist husband, who both chain-smoked ‘Munkas’ (or ‘Worker’), the ultra-cheap cigarettes of the ‘goulash communist’ era, which had a little picture of a cogwheel on each packet.
Then there was the stunningly attractive woman I met who preferred Marlboro Reds, extra-long Rothman Royals and the occasional panatella. I liked her so much I married her.
Sadly, Hungary is a smoker’s paradise no more: the country has become ‘advanced’ and so recently introduced a Draconian smoking ban.
In his review of the 1936 sci-fi film Things to Come, Don Herold wrote: ‘An amazingly ingenious technical accomplishment, even if it does hold out small hope for our race … the existence pictured is as joyless as a squeezed grapefruit.’
That is indeed the grim, ultra-sanitised future that lies ahead of us if the adherents of the world’s newest religion continue to get their way.
Neil Clark is an Oxford-based writer.