Life without tobacco

The campaign against “the greatest evil of the twentieth century”, cigarettes, swept through Slovenia not long ago. As we await the passing of new and much stricter anti-smoking laws (“The law on restricting the use of tobacco products”), many restaurants and bars feel apprehensive about their future, and smokers (myself included) no longer know which is more sickening, cigarette butts or the new measures against them. How is it possible that one of humankind’s major global problems, environmental pollution, is regulated by the modest Kyoto Protocol, which requires only negligible reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases, while the regulation of an incidental problem, smoking, looks like a witch-hunt and a farce? Is passive smoking really that harmful?

Just a few decades ago, smoking was still something magical, irresistibly attractive, mysterious, and above all heroic. Not a word was heard about the hazards. The movie screen, especially for American films, was shrouded in the smoke emanating from the mouths of movie stars and film heroes – cigarette-smoking private detectives, gangsters, and cowboys, as well as cigar-smoking members of the upper classes. The cigarette was an integral and essential part of the hero’s image, as indispensable as a gun or a hat. Gradually this positive (albeit dangerously positive) role was replaced by a negative and detrimental image, especially when we recall the “smoking” image of the femme fatale, who is perhaps the best parallel to the anti-smoking war. Just as the femme fatale represented something negative for men, i.e. a threat to the male identity as a good family man and father, so did the cigarette become something pernicious not just for smokers but for the whole of humanity according to the standard-bearers of the new anti-tobacco war. Smokers today are no longer merely suicidal, they have also become murderers. These days, a lit cigarette in an American “nicotine” film provokes outrage: “But they’re smoking!” As does the film The Insider, in which Al Pacino tries to expose the lies of the tobacco industry. And the messages of the leading global anti-tobacco superpower, the US, on healthy living and long life, and more recently those of the European Union with the slogan: “HELP: For a life without tobacco”. Before long, smokers will be put out on the streets (as desired by some employers), and eventually will be seen only in museums.

If it is already perfectly obvious that smoking is deathly dangerous, it is not quite clear that this is true of passive smoking as well; it is clear only that the latter is an essential instrument for the success of such a policy. If smoking harmed only smokers, then non-smokers would have little chance of implementing such strict anti-smoking measures. Bars, workplaces, and public transport would simply need to be a little better ventilated, and the comfort of non-smokers would continue to be left up to the politeness and consideration of smokers. But since there is supposedly irrefutable evidence of the health hazards of passive smoking, the considerateness of the smoker is superfluous. Michel de Pracontal’s outstanding sociological study of the background to the modern-day witch-hunt against smokers, La Guerre du tabac (The war on tobacco), provides a thorough analysis of what is in fact important to this restrictive policy, and a more detailed analysis of the studies on the dangers of smoking, both active and passive, which are used to support the policy. One of de Pracontal’s central theses is that the war on tobacco is due more to a global ideology promoting the concept of a society without risk than it is to the results of research. As he goes through the mountain of material, he finds that the results of research are spun at the national level so as to exaggerate the risks of smoking, especially passive smoking. The studies do not sufficiently take into account the synergistic effects of a combination of risk factors (very often the cause of disease is related to the combination of tobacco and alcohol, for example, in cancer of the throat). For de Pracontal, all of this taken together indicates that policy makers are simplifying the discourse for the population in order to achieve their ends of completely eradicating this western cultural phenomenon.

A number of films and novels (e.g. Woody Allen’s comedy Sleeper, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the novels of Huxley and Orwell, and others) predict a society of the future which is based on the total control of citizens. Where else is this neo-puritanical hygienism leading, as Michel de Pracontal would put it, but to an antiseptic society without cholesterol, with ultra-lite cigarettes (are these any healthier?), artificial sweeteners, cybersex free of viruses and bacteria? The goal is to develop the perfect citizen: a person free of defects, and devoid of content. To live by the rules today means eating healthy food with lower cholesterol, drinking a little red wine (good for the circulation), having sex with just one partner, and so on. Life with gloves on, for fear of microbes. A society which increases control over the shaping of such a citizen is of course a post-consumer society. A society desired by all. And now it is here and waiting for us to enjoy it to the fullest extent. In stages, of course. And first we have to get rid of all the smokers.

How can we understand the logic of the anti-smoking hysteria, especially given that, as many (though not all) studies show, taxes and savings in pension obligations due to the premature deaths of smokers compensate for and even exceed the medical costs of treating smoking-related illnesses, such that it is entirely possible that society as a whole profits? In any case, there is something wrong with a society which so vocally denounces a peripheral problem, while major problems like pollution and scarcity receive far less attention. Clearly smoking is the only “evil” which society is capable of eradicating, whereas finding a common solution to the other problems mentioned belongs to the realm of science fiction. Perhaps an answer to the hysteria is this: smokers in their otherwise shorter lifespans spend a fortune, but if they stopped smoking they would live longer and consume even more. This is more than necessary for the new society and its ideals.

Published 6 November 2006
Original in Slovenian
First published by Dialogi 9/2006 (Slovenian version)

Contributed by Dialogi © Bostjan Lah/Dialogi Eurozine

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