Freedom up in a puff of smoke

The die was cast barely weeks into the Blair administration when junior minister Tessa Jowett, delirious with the joy of being in charge of something and in possession of a fragment of power, gave a public demonstration of hand-washing.

Like that of Pontius Pilate 2,000 years before, the gesture was powerfully symbolic, a lesson in hand-rinsing that summed up the entire ethos of the government of which she is a small adornment.

For New Labour, personal hygiene is not a personal matter: it is an affair of state. Under this regime, stakeholders must wash their hands and, being essentially simple folk, will get the hang of it when instructed by a junior minister. They might be so inspired by the example of one anointed by government office that hand washing could break out across the country like a wave of religious ecstasy.

Tessa’s partial immersion signalled the inevitable, and now it has happened. By December 10, all forms of tobacco advertising in Britain will be banned.

No matter that at every stage in this drawn-out and miserable process the anti-tobacco lobby has lost the argument. No doubt there are some who seriously believe that once tobacco advertising becomes illegal sales will drop significantly. Since there is not a shred of empirical evidence to support this (quite the reverse: in Canada when tobacco advertising was outlawed, sales rose), it is plain that this measure is an act of faith.

That is wholly consistent with the anti-smoking cause, which is in essence a new quasi-religious orthodoxy and therefore not susceptible to reason. And one should not forget that orthodoxy is fashionable and New Labour desires above all else to be “modern”.

So whereas it would once have been thought prudish to disapprove of smoking but quite natural to deprecate profligate sex, today the reverse holds true. In New Labour circles you may with an easy conscience declare yourself bisexual and given to nocturnal excursions, but never let it be said that you inhale in public.

As with all successful religions, anti-smoking requires an element of the superstitious. Over the years, the alleged consequences of tobacco use have acquired a substantial accretion of mystical beliefs assiduously put about by the high priests of the medical profession. Thus smoking causes not just bronchitis and lung cancer but also broken marriages, cot deaths, retarded offspring and, most recently (and most cunningly, considering that sexual intercourse is now highly fashionable) male impotence.

This black propaganda has been so successfully disseminated that there are those who fervently believe (the late Roy Castle was among them) that lung cancer has but a single cause. That fallacy leads to a bigger lie, namely that smoking kills 120,000 people in Britain every year. “Smoking”, according to this view, is shorthand for “smoking-related diseases”, which, since they include everything from heart failure to dropsy, are contracted by non-smokers too, rendering the statistics unreliable and inconclusive.

Religious zealots are blind to their own hypocrisy. So it is no surprise when the anti-smoking lobby, ASH, warns that tobacco companies will use “every possible trick” to circumvent the advertising ban.

The anti-smokers have themselves resorted to trickery and bogus science on a breathtaking scale, from the invention of “passive smoking” to the concealment of research findings unfavourable to their cause.

No one pretends that smoking is good for you, but tobacco remains a product that is legally manufactured and sold, and one moreover from which the Government benefits immensely in tax revenues.

Banning the advertising of tobacco is gesture politics, a votive offering on the altar of the new orthodoxy. But it is worse than that, it is an erosion of liberty.

Of course, there are those who will scoff and say that to ban the promotion of a product that causes disease and death is of no great consequence, and, if it has a price in terms of lost freedom, well, it is a price worth paying. But freedom is priceless and in Western nations is seldom lost wholesale, overnight in a bloody coup; rather it is chipped away, piece by piece, so that we hardly notice it has gone until it is too late.

We are already less free than we were 50 years ago, when an Englishman could speak his mind without being watched over by a quango commission for this or that equality and without being hastily reminded that, for Englishman also read Englishwoman, and preferably use neither term, but say Briton. There was a time when we could choose whether or not to wear car seat-belts for our own safety, whether or not to eat beef on the bone, whether or not to smack a child.

Hell, there was even a time when we could sweep the road if we so wished, but not any more. Rod Hudsmith of Wells in Somerset tried it as a public-spirited gesture and was banned on the ground that he had no training in safety or the use of protective clothing.

“I cannot condone it,” said the busybody from Mendip Council. “He is putting himself at risk.”

Time was when you needed no training in using a broom, and putting yourself at risk was a valued freedom.

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