A unique case?

It is the summer of 2007. A humble council meeting in the Californian town of Belmont has attracted a degree of attention from the world's press to which this quiet suburban community is wholly unaccustomed. Extra security has been ordered after several councillors received death threats. On the internet, a photo of the mayor is being circulated with the image doctored to show her in full Nazi regalia.

Inside the town hall, local politicians debate a bill which, if passed, will ban smoking on every street, park and sidewalk in Belmont, as well as in all apartments and many private homes. Only detached houses will be exempt. Even nonsmokers face possible prosecution; it will be illegal for any citizen to fail to report an infringement to the police.

The debate is heated. The mayor, Coralin Feierbach, raises her voice and waves her arms as she makes her case:

"I'm thinking of the children, that's the most important thing. Not necessarily the restaurants, not necessarily the condos, but the children in the community."

Warming to her theme, she bangs her fist on the table three times as she shouts:

"Children! Children! Children!"(1)

This being California, it goes without saying that it is already illegal to smoke in offices, bars and restaurants. For years, the 'Golden State' has built a reputation for being tough on smoking but even ardent nonsmokers are beginning to wonder whether the anti-smoking campaign has crossed the line between protecting public health and intruding on personal freedom. "I don't know where the boundaries of a truly legally defensible ordinance are," concedes Councillor Dave Warden, a keen supporter of the bill, "I really believe that we're so close to the line that no one can really tell."(2)

As the press gathers in Belmont, the town's councillors are contemplating the most far-reaching anti-smoking law of modern times, but it will not be long before a more extreme ordinance is passed in some other part of the world and the media will move on. Smokers and civil libertarians will continue to complain of discrimination and the public health lobby will continue to devise new ways to stamp out the smoking habit.

None of this is new. The English Puritans who settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut banned smoking in the street in the 17th century. In Russia, Turkey, China and elsewhere smokers were punished with mutilation, torture and death. For five centuries tobacco was besieged on the basis of religious conviction, public morality, fire safety, racial superiority, political doctrine and often - but never exclusively - health. The fascists of Germany viewed smoking as a Communist habit just as the socialists regarded it as suspiciously bourgeois. For Christians, it was a pagan custom; for Muslims, it was a Christian invention. The anti-Semites associated it with the Jews, the teetotallers linked it to the drunks and the chaste linked it to the debauched. Wherever there was a popular cause, there were bands of anti-tobacconists ready to attach themselves to it.

Time and again the anti-smokers gathered momentum only to overreach themselves and tumble into obscurity. The political ideologies with which they allied themselves would fall out of favour, their charismatic leaders would die, their followers would come to be seen as cranks and the myriad diseases they blamed on the hated herb - infertility, blindness, hysteria, herpes and insanity, to name but a few - would be exposed as the products of fevered imaginations.

And then, in the mid-20th century, solid evidence finally surfaced which showed that the latest and most popular tobacco product - the cigarette - did indeed cause some serious diseases and all of a sudden the cranks and the moralists disappeared. No longer did anyone oppose tobacco because it led to drink or debauchery. No longer did anyone condemn it as irreligious. No one fretted about cigarettes causing fires and no one insisted - as they had only a few years earlier - that their consumption would infect the gene pool and wipe out the white race. For the first time since Columbus's first encounter with the weed, the zealots and fanatics of the anti-tobacco leagues simply vanished. In their place came a host of new organisations whose agenda was strikingly similar to that of the tobacco-haters of bygone days but whose members declared themselves to be motivated only by concern for the public health.

By now, however, the smoking public had grown used to ignoring the shrill voices that for generations had fed them tall tales about the devilish herb and so there was an urgent need to educate them about this genuine peril. It started with a warning label. In the 1960s, governments around the world ordered the tobacco industry to label each pack of their extraordinarily lucrative product with a cautionary note to its customers. Soon afterwards, the government brought the curtain down on televised cigarette commercials.

The industry complained that its right to free speech was being trampled on. In the United States, where the right to free expression was enshrined in the Constitution, they may have had a case but it was hard to deny that, as a legal product, cigarettes were unusually dangerous. American politicians remained reluctant to over-regulate business, curtail free speech or challenge the public's right to smoke, but they banned broadcast advertising all the same because cigarettes posed a "unique danger" which required unique policies.

Around the world, taxes on tobacco rose, the warnings became stronger, tobacco advertising was banned in all its forms and the number of places in which smokers could engage in their habit dwindled. Some complained that smokers were being persecuted by joyless puritans set on the outright criminalisation of tobacco. Others warned that the anti-smoking endeavour represented the thin end of a wedge that would ultimately lead to the state dictating what people ate, drank, how much they should exercise and what they should spend their money on. "Today it's cigarettes," announced one cigarette company in 1994, "Will high-fat foods be next?"(3) Such warnings fell on deaf ears, particularly when they came from the discredited tobacco industry. Those who warned that society was sliding down a slippery slope of government intrusion were accused of indulging in hyperbole bordering on paranoia. The cigarette, it was said again, was a unique case - a product that could kill when used as the manufacturer intended - and it was ludicrous to compare eating a steak or drinking a glass of wine with smoking a pack of cigarettes.

The educational campaign against smoking inspired millions of smokers to kick their habit but millions more persisted and, much to the surprise of the anti-smoking groups, millions more took up the habit in full knowledge of the hazards. For those who sought tobacco's destruction, the well of government measures that could be deployed to dissuade individuals from risking their own health was running dry and so a new theory emerged.

The evidence that tobacco smoke was still dangerous at vastly diluted levels in the form of secondhand smoke was scant but the idea was invaluable to those who wanted the anti-smoking campaign to shift up a few gears. With it, the hated, stinking smoke became a menace to all and could be prohibited as a threat to the lives of others. Smokers stubbornly continued to puff away in streets, doorways and in their homes but the end, it seemed, was nigh.

By the time the councillors of Belmont were debating the merits of banning smoking in people's own homes, the battlers for public health had long since expanded their horizons beyond cigarettes and were campaigning for legislation against products which were neither unique nor necessarily dangerous. This, too, began with a warning label. Today, the spokesmen and spokeswomen of the health organisations demand warnings be placed on wine bottles, food packaging, cars, gambling machines, aeroplanes, bottled water and large-sized clothes. Activists of all kinds wrestle with one another for the prize of having their cause seen as "the new smoking."

As before, the warnings serve to identify certain products and forms of behaviour as socially undesirable and, also as before, they are merely a prelude to fresh bans and further legislation. Advertising executives now accept that the days of promoting alcoholic drinks on television are numbered. Commercials for hamburgers, chips, cheese and full-fat milk have begun to disappear from the airwaves in Britain and elsewhere. Politicians are regularly advised to slap 'sin taxes' on food and drink, to issue their citizens with pedometers, to limit the number of drinks that can be served in bars, to deny medical treatment to the overweight, to compel restauranteurs to put warnings on their menus, to ban smokers from adopting children and to prohibit perfume, aftershave and other supposed 'toxins' in the workplace.

Are these pragmatic measures to protect the public health or unwarranted intrusions into private behaviour? Do these new laws represent the next logical step or the slippery slope? These are questions that have been asked for generations. We have been here many times before. To give but one example, the American temperance movement of the 19th century began by condemning heavy drinking and hard liquor. Temperance - as its name suggests - meant moderation, not abolition, but within a few decades the anti-saloon activists were calling for the complete criminalisation of the production and consumption of all forms of alcohol.

Prohibition was achieved in 1919 and one newspaper compared the ranks of victorious teetotallers to "a soldier of fortune after the peace is signed."(4) Suddenly redundant, but with no intention of disbanding, it took the moral crusaders only a matter of weeks before they had set their sights on banning tobacco and were rallying round the banner of 'Nicotine Next.' Seventy-five years later, the vice-president of the country's foremost anti-smoking group, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, was asked what she would do if tobacco should miraculously disappear. Her candid answer was that she would "simply move on to other causes."(5)

This is the story of just one cause, a cause that for many years seemed doomed but which ultimately set the template for the public health campaigns of the present-day. It is a story populated by characters who had little in common beyond a mutual hatred of tobacco, and it is a story that began long before any of the elements that colour our perception of the smoking issue today existed. When Columbus explored the New World there was no tobacco industry and no advertising industry. The link between smoking and cancer was unknown. There was no concept of passive smoking, let alone 'passive drinking' or 'secondhand obesity.' The battle against smoking began without any of this and yet it began all the same, almost from the moment the Spanish lit their first pipes, and it rarely let up in the five hundred years that followed.

Copyright: Christopher J. Snowdon (2008)

Notes on the Introduction

(1) 'Just can't quit: How far will smoking bans go', Reason.tv, November 2008

(2) 'This proposed smoking ban has some fuming' Los Angeles Times Maria L. La Ganga, 29/1/07

(3) Full page magazine advertisement, RJ Reynolds, June 1994

(4) Portland Oregonian, 11/12/1919

(5) John Schwartz, "California Activists' Success Ignites a Not-So-Slow-Burn," Washington Post, May 30, 1994, p. 1