The repellent persecution of smokers and tobacco companies in America
bemuses me, and I am glad to hear that a backlash of resistance to it is
growing. I quit smoking at 16, after riding up a steep hill on my
bicycle with a cigarette dangling from my lips. At the top of the hill I
paused, took the thing out of my mouth, and looked at it. The mouth end
(there was no cork tip) was wet and dark gray and disgusting. At the
same time I realized that the taste in my mouth was like the stench of
an uncleaned birdcage. So I threw the butt away and never smoked again.

Although I was wearing a Boy Scout uniform at the time, my decision
was purely aesthetic, with no moral content. Did it save me from lung
cancer in later life? Maybe. There is no history of such ailments in my
family; my father smoked into his 80s, until his heart surgeon advised
him to give it up, as a precautionary measure. He did, instantly, also
with no ill effects. It was a purely practical decision, without benefit
of categorical imperative. My mother smoked all her life, but it was not
tobacco that finally killed her.

What does this prove? Probably not a lot. The human being is a
complicated piece of creation, which makes it difficult to guess at and
then cope with ailments which are often lethal and mysterious in their
origins. Genetic tendency, collateral environmental influences, even
morale and temper come into such things.

But the usual human being does not like his complexities. He likes
the simple process of cause and effect, This can be a boon when you are
crossing the street; it causes you to make sure you avoid moving
vehicles, whose lethal impact on the human body is simple and dramatic
and easily understood.

Where cytological processes are involved, the process of cause and
effect fogs and becomes frustrating. One man or woman may smoke happily
for a lifetime, dying at 95 from causes which have nothing to do with
tobacco. Another may smoke for a decade and end up a wheezing
emphysematic wreck. Yet another may expire at 30 with tumor-choked
lungs, never having smoked at all.

And yet we clutch and grab at some sort of simple, direct
cause-and-effect explanation. Smoking is a famously dirty habit; in some
people it does seem to carry a serious risk of lung and mouth cancer.
But no one really knows just how risky it is, despite various reports
which throw numbers about in great profusion. It is the complexity of
cytology, the lack of ultimate knowledge about the processes in our
cells, that prevents us from actually knowing, from being able to say
with certainty, whether smoking causes cancer, or simply contributes to
it. All that the evidence seems to prove is that smoking is risky — for
some people. But for others it patently is not, and smoking is a
harmless pleasure.

This is not the way smoking is now discussed. The anti-smoking cause
has become an Orwellian smelly little orthodoxy (often smellier than
smoking itself), driven by the sort of essentially mindless fanatic who
is given to the single-cause fallacy — i.e., these people identify the
certainty (not the risk, but the certainty) of death with smoking, and
mean to eliminate that certainty by force, blackmail and any other means
that come to hand. They have a cause.

As the great economist Joseph Schumpeter once remarked, the first
thing a man will do in defense of a cause is to lie. And of course
anti-smoking fanatics, churning up the political form of puritanism that
means to save bodies instead of souls, are great, extravagant, shameless
and prolific liars. Aside from their statistical games, their
fundamental lie consists of the implicit assertion that if we all do as
they tell us, if we no longer inhale tobacco smoke — actively or
passively — we will all be saved from the risk of death. We may
continue to take deep breaths of car exhaust, wood smoke, urban
pollutants, fumes at gas stations, human and animal farts, the fragrance
of sewage, bad breath and other olfactory perils; we will continue to
drink alcohol, inject various exotic substances, smoke and inhale
cannabis, and indulge ourselves in the superficially pleasant fragrance
of chemical perfumes, deodorants, and food additives, the effects of
which are unknown, and may (who knows?) be sinister; but we will all
remain pure in lung and heart and live to a ripe old age, if, and only
if smoking is banned in public places — and preferably criminalized

Even the media are corrupted by this vicious nonsense. Britain’s BBC
television news blatantly lied to its March 11 audience, opening the one
o’clock broadcast with the flat, dramatic statement that passive smoking
“causes” cancer. This is simply not true — that is to say not a proven
fact, though you would not know that from the manner of BBC’s presenter.
His melodramatic announcement was quoting the conclusion of an American
“report” which consisted of incomplete and selective information, none
of it conclusive, and all of it blatantly chosen to suit an anti-smoking
agenda. This elaborate lie had already been exposed by World Health
Organization research, suppressed but leaked to the public, showing that
the risk in passive smoking was effectively nonexistent.

Personally I have no axe to grind one way or the other on the use of
tobacco. I do not smoke myself. I am not in the tobacco business, have
no connection with it, and I would lose nothing if every tobacco plant
in the world was burned or ploughed under, and the tobacco companies
bankrupted, and all their workers sent to colonize the moon tomorrow,
never to return.

My objection to the anti-smokers is that I do not like being lied to
by this rather nastily supercilious hyper-puritan gaggle of
hole-in-corner, lung-saving fanatics who are, in effect, trying to
impose something very much like that lunar exile, meanwhile ruthlessly
harassing smokers and trying to banish them into some sort of outer
darkness on earth. In the matter of physical salvation, I prefer to make
my own choices about seeking it. I do not want it forced upon me by a
sanctimonious, somewhat wild-eyed mob of mendacious, quasi-fascist
A similar effort to save citizens from their own inclination to pleasure
— accompanied by a similar brand of fatuous rhetoric and warped
statistics — occurred about seven decades ago in America. It was called
the Volstead Act, or Prohibition, and its principal result was a wild
splurge of indulgence in alcohol, much of it giving cirrhosis to people
who would otherwise never have touched the stuff. By the time Americans
came to their senses and repealed this idiotic and vicious piece of
federal legislation, it was too late to forestall the other effect: the
consolidation of organized crime in the United States.

Would a legislative ban on smoking lead to such a disaster? A
definite yes would be the style of assertion that the current
anti-smoking fanatics like to deploy, and I am reluctant to play that
game. All I will say is that the risk is there, and it is as real as the
risk involved in smoking. One is medical; one is political. And which
sort of risk do I prefer to take? Everyday, in every way, I prefer the
medical risk of smoking. Far, far less dangerous than the risk of
well-intentioned bigots who insist on saving us all. We have the
evidence of a century to prove it.

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