Mother’s Smoke

Glen Newey

As my mother likes to say, life’s a shit and then you die. Not only that, but many of the things that help mitigate the shit – overeating, drugs, booze, brain-addling TV, tobacco – are likely to make you die sooner rather than later. So the clear-eyed choice is between eking out an existence of miserable and abstemious longevity, and one where the booze, as well as getting you pissed in the short term, bestows the added boon of an early grave.

Most of my youth – even the pre-alcohol phase – is now recollected through a glass darkly, the obscurity disseminated by a pall of tobacco smoke. Nearly everyone, including my parents and all their friends, smoked, and smoked voraciously. Apart from the Saturday matinée, cinema visits used to resemble an Iron Maiden concert. James Bond, Mary Poppins and the rest were dimly glimpsed through a haze of carcinogens. My grandmother got through sixty Benson and Hedges a day, well into her wheezing dotage.

This week the Commons debated the clause in the Children and Families Bill that outlaws lighting up in any private vehicle that’s carrying children. MPs voted by well over three to one (376-107) for the ban, on the presumable basis that as only about one-fifth of UK adults smoke, the electoral gains outweigh the risks.

It’s all as depressing as health food and follows hard on the heels of the UK smoking ban of 2007; last year Strasbourg followed up by banning menthol gaspers. In Britain, wretched smokers are now banished from bars and eateries to pavements in the drizzle to indulge in their entirely legal drug of choice, denied even the fume-boxes offered by Belgian clubs. The sane solution – to create two categories of licence for bars, restaurants and so on, so that customers could choose whether or not to patronise a smoking establishment – passed MPs by when the smoking ban came in; the state could, if it wanted, make smoking licenses dearer to flag up its disapproval of the habit.

In Germany – seldom noted, at least in the UK, for its jealous guardianship of civil liberties – the ban, where it exists at all, is widely and wisely flouted. In Berlin over Xmas I used to visit the smoking bar up the road from my flat in Prenzlauer Berg, even though I don’t really smoke any more, just for the retroish thrill of inhaling nicotine-rich carcinogens again in a pub. Objectors divide between people who say there’d be no market for smokers’ bars – in which case there’s nothing to worry about – and those who argue there’d be too much of a market, in which case a ban seems not just paternalistic, but oppressive. Certainly the law should safeguard the health of bar and restaurant workers, as proponents of the 2007 ban argued, but demand for smoking bars broadly fluctuates in step with the habit's incidence in the population at large, and the sector has a high level of occupational mobility.

As usual with nanny laws, no account is taken of the opportunity costs incurred in policing it. Children, especially young ones, generally have a low profile in motor vehicles. Will snatch-squads of roadside plods lie in wait to flag down any motorist seen puffing on the off-chance that there may be a toddler strapped into the back seat? Will the ban extend to smokeless e-fags? Will pregnant women who smoke behind the wheel get whacked (and how long will it be before expectant mothers are banned from smoking whether or not they’re driving)? What about dachshunds that find themselves holed up in a Mini Cooper with a clutch of chain smokers?

Here’s the bad news, from my mother. We’re all going to die. Why spoil the fun for kids who want to smoke in their parents’ car?


  • 18 February 2014 at 11:24am
    philip proust says:
    Is 'Mother's Smoke' a serious piece of writing or just a deliberate provocation - of the type one expects to find in a Murdoch publication - to those who take health issues seriously? I assume it is the former but I have been sucked in regardless apparently. [It could also plausibly be a parody of that right-libertarian genre.] In any case I offer a few of the obvious objections as if Glen Newey were serious.
    Firstly, it is impossible to protect adequately employees in cafes and bars from the ill-effects of passive smoking. In a tight labour market people will take jobs in smoker-friendly venues due to ignorance and/or economic necessity; and they will suffer damage as a consequence.
    Secondly, children are unable to choose their parents, therefore they require a legal shield, however thin in practice, to reduce the likelihood of adverse health effects.
    Glen Newey seems to think that he is advocating liberty for the individual against the incursions of the 'nanny-state', but rightists are pushing versions of his line because they resent any weakening of big business's access to the individual consumer's spending power. From one angle Glen Newey's mother is a rugged individualist willing to defy bravely the advice of experts trying to interfere with her habit; from another perspective however she is merely another victim of Big Tobacco. 'Mother's Smoke' doesn't mention the unmentionable endgame awaiting those suffering smoking-related diseases like emphysema: that is, an often lengthy period of invalidism followed by horrific death throes. We all have to die but not that way.

  • 18 February 2014 at 10:52pm
    Glen Newey says:
    I thank Mr Proust for taking the time to comment.

    On whether the post is a ‘serious’ piece of writing or not – I want to say, first, that everything I write is, if you’re sold on the term, serious; and that the post, like my other stuff, reflects my view that life is too serious to take seriously. To speak personally for a moment, it’s taken a lot of drugs and therapeutic intervention to reach this degree of flippancy, and it’s a feat that calls for studious curatorship.

    On the policy issues. 1. The suggestion that smoking bars condemns a low-transfer-earning sector of the workforce to passively-induced carcinoma strikes me, frankly, as risible. It also fails to treat workers as adults capable of assessing risk. Other sectors of the economy, notably fishing and construction, carry much larger risks that are more fruitful targets of state regulation. 2. I do in passing ‘mention the unmentionable endgame’ when referring to my grandmother, who suffered chronic bronchitis all the time I knew her. 3. It’s tough on kids whose parents smoke, as I know, but the tendency of imposing a ‘legal shield’ to shelter children from their parents’ boozing and hi-carb diets and sofa-spud lifestyle is to dissolve the family. 4. I don’t like the tobacco firms any more than I assume Mr Proust does. I’d be more than happy for them to be replaced by state provision, something it has sometimes done with ineradicable depravity such as gambling (vide the long-lived UK state bookie, the tote).

    My mother was and is capable of making her own decisions without Mr Proust’s aid (she in fact kicked the habit on decimalisation day, 15 February 1971). Public education is fine as a means of educating the young about their choices. But after a certain point, I think that people have to be treated as adults who will foot the tab for their own choices. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that for Mr Proust, those who make (what he sees as) the wrong choice should have their decision made for them. That seems to me not a programme for rampaging laissez-faire, but for any society that pays minimal heed to human liberty.

  • 19 February 2014 at 3:23pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    If smoking in cars were that great a menace to passengers, wouldn't rates of smoking-related disease be much higher - and lifespans much lower - in older generations than they are and have been? Wouldn't we have seen an unarguable drop in smoking-related morbidity and mortality since the smoking ban?

    I'd also be interested in Mr Proust's views on e-cigarettes, which are tar-free and emit very little of anything apart from steam.

    • 20 February 2014 at 2:27am
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Phil Edwards
      Do you think that non-smokers are somehow absent from the historical statistics for lung cancer, throat cancer, emphysema, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ischaemic heart disease, stroke and all the other smokers' diseases? Or that deaths from smoking have not declined in line with the incidence of smoking as it has been reduced through the influence of public policy?

      E-cigarettes would self-evidently reduce harm from passive smoking. Other than the subliminal encouragement to smoke real cigarettes, they would be no more harmful to a child than sucking Werther's Originals while you drove them to school. Other practices while driving can be more injurious to a passenger's health, such as texting, which has also been legislated against. Was that a flagrant imposition on civil liberty or a sensible protection of public safety? Smoking in cars doesn't usually cause crashes, but that doesn't mean it is harmless to innocent passengers.

    • 27 February 2014 at 2:04am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      What I think is that the long-term decline in smoking has been accompanied by a long-term decline in "smokers' diseases" broadly defined, as a direct result of the decline in the population of smokers. I also think that the smoking ban imposed a few years ago gave us a national-scale natural experiment in measuring the effects of passive smoking: if low-level exposure to other people's exhaled smoke were a major health risk, we should, at some point after the ban, have seen a substantial drop in smoking-related mortality & morbidity. Instead of which, we've seen a continuation of the pre-existing downward trend.

      While I agree that it's generally better to be alive and healthy than ill or dead - and, by logical extension, it's better to have proportionately more people alive and healthy - I believe that personal autonomy takes precedence; I'm not in favour of improving people's health against their will. I'm particularly not in favour of a blanket anti-smoker policy implemented incrementally and justified by shaky evidence of harm to others.

  • 20 February 2014 at 1:16am
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    Thank you, Glen Newey for illustrating the precise manner in which libertarianism escapes the gravitational pull of human decency.

  • 20 February 2014 at 8:46am
    philip proust says:
    I am delighted that Glen Newey's mother was able to give up smoking; she must have possessed great willpower, as most observers judge smoking to be harder to give up than heroin; I assume also that she was well informed and of a rational cast of mind.

    On the other hand, what would Glen Newey say of my mother, who lacked the mental strength to break the habit and died an appalling death as a result? That she was an adult who knowingly took the risk, who gave in to temptation and is therefore 'footing the tab' for her own choice? However, my mother was uneducated and not of a rational cast of mind, though she was perfectly sane; and she was as a consequence not able to engage in the kind of risk management that would have allowed her to make a rational choice.

    She is hardly alone. Just under half of long-term smokers die of a smoking-related illness, apparently. If we think of the world's smokers past and present we are looking at an extraordinary death toll. These are not just victims whose lives were cut short or will be cut short but individuals who suffered and will suffer a very high degree of physical and mental agony over an extended period of time. Like my mother, they are smokers who encounter a powerful addiction that over-rides whatever rational resources they possess; their powers of agency in regard to their habit are all but destroyed in many cases. The outcome is a collective tab that is catastrophically enormous.

    By definition we generally accept that an addiction has the effect of radically narrowing the addict's ability to choose. This is why potential victims and addicts need more than education to help them, because they face something that too often is more powerful than themselves. Meanwhile Big Tobacco is making mega-profits.

    At a slightly distant remove, I assume that Glen Newey would support the right of the Qing to protect nineteenth century Chinese from the effects of opium consumption; he would surely not defend the British side in the Opium Wars; yet, Queen Victoria, her government and soldiers were supporting the rights of the Chinese to choose their poison.

    • 20 February 2014 at 12:58pm
      outofdate says: @ philip proust
      It's the curse of the Salvation Army that you forever believe everyone else's agency to be marred by Satan while the fellow in the nightie does nothing more than give your own elbows a little lift. Yet there you stand, night after night, in all weathers, all wearing identical outfits and banging tambourines...

    • 20 February 2014 at 10:48pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ outofdate
      I usually find that being deeply patronising works better when you you expose your opponent's flawed argument or evasiveness, rather than your own.

      To return to the point of the Glen Newey's original post, perhaps he, or one of the other champions of liberty could explain to us holier-than-thou do-gooders exactly what freedom of choice can be exercised by a child strapped into its seat inside a smoke-filled car?

    • 28 February 2014 at 1:19pm
      outofdate says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      No, but I'm rather enjoying the scenario.

  • 25 February 2014 at 3:08pm
    KMK says:
    How on earth is working in the construction or fishing industries similar to working in a bar or restaurant in terms of risk? Construction and fishing both have severe dangers that are unavoidable due to the nature of the work (the danger can be reduced through safe practices, but you can't change the fact that deep-sea fishing must take place on the sea). Cigarette smoke is not an inherent part of a bar environment, even if it's what smokers would prefer. The work environment *can* be made significantly safer for employees through removing cigarette smoke.

    • 27 February 2014 at 12:39pm
      Glen Newey says: @ KMK
      Well, cigarette smoke is an inherent part of a bar environment that allows smoking. The underlying question, begged by distinguishing jobs whose dangers are unavoidable from those that aren't, is on what basis law-makers decide that the social benefit from some jobs outweighs the risks to those who do them. That a risk is, relative to current technical capacities, unavoidable, doesn't mean that jobs that carry the risk are likewise unavoidable. Nobody needs to eat fish, for example. And nobody needs to climb mountains, pothole, or engage in the multifarious other human activities - like getting out of bed or opening the fridge - that carry a certain risk. There's no obvious answer to where the cut-off point lies. Given this a presumption in favour of letting people take the risks they wish to take seems to me preferable to a regime in which the decisions are made for them by Mr Proust's or Amateur Emigrant's intuitions about what they should be allowed to do.

  • 28 February 2014 at 1:24am
    bluecat says:
    It is not intuitions which tell people what they are allowed to do but the law. Generally the law forbids actions. However, some laws enforce us to do things.

    Mr Newey has apparently not noticed the longstanding (but in the last 4 years increasingly widely applied) principle that an unemployed person is not allowed to refuse a job, or refuse to apply for a job, under threat of losing for up to 6 months at a time the small dole that they and their dependants subsist on. About half the applicants to food banks at any one time are victims of these sanctions. (Unemployed young women in Britain are already being threatened with sanctions if they refuse to apply for jobs at lap-dancing clubs and massage parlours, and, in countries where brothels are legal, women there are finding the same pressure).

    "Letting people take the risks they wish" is all well and good if you don't look too close, but forcing people to risk lung cancer or emphesyma later or homelessness and malnutrition for themselves and their children sooner cannot be reframed, no matter how hard Mr Newey contorts his deadly frivolity, as a choice.

    Mr Newey's insouciance or ignorance on this point seem to derive from his imagined position as such a bar's patron, rather than anyone who is likely to be at work there, pouring his drinks for him while he pollutes the air they have no choice but to breathe.

    • 28 February 2014 at 9:53am
      KMK says: @ bluecat
      Thank you.

    • 28 February 2014 at 6:04pm
      Glen Newey says: @ bluecat
      As it happens, at different times I’ve been both one of the long-term unemployed and worked in a (smoking) bar, so I don’t need any lectures about these things. On one view, risks are just out there, like Channel fog. On a slightly less naïve appraisal, risks are bad stuff that may be associated with a frequency distribution. As is already clear even with this rough-and-ready account, someone has to take a position about what the bad stuff is. Talk of the ‘risk’ of emphysema etc. as if it exists independently of judgements about how bad it is, say by its possible victims, is, bluntly, a power trip. More generally, the citing of ‘risk’ as a trump card against reasoned argument is one of the fatuities the blog was trying to dispel. Never mind.

  • 1 March 2014 at 2:17pm
    bluecat says:
    So, reading from the top of Glen Newey's latest post, we've got

    - appeal to personal experience (does the writer suppose he is unique in having those experiences?) while evading the point, which is about risk and compulsion.

    - insults and talking down ("lectures"; "naive"; "a power trip" - apparently, mentioning a disease caused by inhaling smoke in a discussion of the effects of smoke is a power trip; "fatuities")

    - word salad (starting with "On one view..." and proceeding to the final full stop).

    Way to support a "reasoned argument" against criticism, dude!

    Seriously, is that what passes for discussion on the LRB blog these days?

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