Smoking for England
- Smoke Ring: The Politics of Tobacco by Peter Taylor
Bodley Head, 384 pp, £9.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 370 30513 2
Some time in the late 1960s the then prime minister Harold Wilson started using a new phrase to describe the world we live in: ‘pluralist democracy’. The word ‘pluralist’, which had been hanging around for a long time without doing any harm to anyone, meant, I think, ‘accepting many interests and ideas, rather than one’. In pluralist democracy, government plays the role of wise and benevolent chairman, holding the ring for the great interests which ‘jockey’ for power, rather than controlling them. The power of these interests, notably the big corporations, was controlled, it was argued, not so much by government as by the ‘jockeying’ of all the other interests. Government is always there, of course, to check any excess: but those who suggested any extension of government over the great corporations were ushering in a dark age of bureaucratic tyranny. This theory later became the central slogan of the Thatcher-Reagan reaction of the Eighties.
Vol. 6 No. 14 · 2 August 1984
SIR: I doubt if I am alone in finding Mr Paul Foot’s review of Smoke Ring: The Politics of Tobacco (LRB, 5 July) disconcertingly revealing. Mr Foot has tended to stand out among his comrades on the ultra-left on account of a libertarianism which he seemed to have carried over from his days as a Liberal. Or so it seemed. His diatribe against the availability of tobacco shows how much – not very much – this is worth. ‘Should not governments, at least, take active steps to ensure that the cigarette fetish was discouraged, preferably banned. The argument seemed irresistible …’ Irresistible indeed to those who take it for granted that Government should function as a nanny. It has long been clear that many MPs, probably a majority in all major parties, make this assumption but it seems a pity that Mr Foot should rank himself with them.
Does it really have to be said that people should be left alone to take their own decisions in matters of health? Or does Mr Foot think that the workers are so easily swayed by the commercially interested ‘media’, made so comatose by lying propaganda, as to be incapable of choice? It seems clear from his review that this is just what he does think. In the case of countries where the toxic qualities of tobacco are not well publicised there is force in the argument that presents smokers as victims. But this has not been the case in the UK for a long time and Mr Foot’s attitude of essential contempt for the populace – an inevitable component of paternalistic solicitude – could hardly be more patent.
SIR: Allow me to protest, with all the authority of a smoker in the second week of withdrawal, against the hysterical extremism of Paul Foot. To call tobacco ‘the most dangerous drug of all’, and its manufacturers ‘the most dangerous drug-peddlers of modern times’, is crazy nonsense. Irritable as I may be at the moment, am I undergoing the desperate symptoms of junky withdrawal, which in the case of barbiturates can even be fatal? Could a single cigarette, like a single LSD tablet, have landed me in a mental hospital? Would I, even if penniless, have been reduced to haunting Hyde Park at night to mug somebody for tomorrow’s fix of nicotine? Mr Foot no doubt has a muddle-headed idea that legally available drugs do more harm than heroin because they are more widely available. But even among drug addicts within the law, isn’t the chain-smoker better-off than someone sipping gin all day or popping barbiturates?
There is a ring of false rhetoric even in calling tobacco a ‘dangerous drug’. One can use that term of such widely different substances as heroin, LSD and alcohol, because all have psychotropic effects which disrupt the ordinary business of daily life. Tobacco isn’t like that. Cigarette-smoking is dangerous because (like eating sugar, breathing smog, living near a nuclear reactor) it has turned out to do long-term damage to health, damage which has nothing to do with the fact that tobacco (like tea and coffee) is a habit-forming and mildly psychotropic drug. To call something a ‘dangerous drug’ because it happens to be among the causes of cancer is as though, because Colonel Gaddafi is dangerous, and he is a driver, one were to call him a dangerous driver.
School of Oriental and African Studies, London WC1