“DON’T forget the cigarettes for Tommy,” ran one patriotic British ditty during the first world war. American generals told their government they needed “tobacco as much as bullets”; charities sent cigarettes to the front-line. After the war, non-smokers seemed odd. The crime writer, Agatha Christie, even apologised for not smoking. She had tried many times, she said, but just could not like it.
In this solidly researched, interesting and only occasionally strident book, Christopher Snowdon, an independent researcher, documents the cigarette’s journey from patriotic necessity to pariah status. There had always been those who found smoking “loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs,” as James I put it in 1604. Some despots, in Hindustan and Persia, went further, slitting smokers’ lips or pouring molten lead down their throats. American prohibitionists claimed that smoking led to moral decay; Nazis that it was a decadent Jewish habit. But few non-bigots thought that their personal distaste warranted limiting the freedom of others.
Once the awful effects of smoking on health became clear, however, smokers could be harassed for their own good. And the notion of passive smoking allowed campaigners to go even further, and seek to stamp out smoking almost everywhere. In America, lawyers got involved. “Flies to honey, vampires to blood—but we’ve got a glut of lawyers out there just looking for someone to sue,” said John Banzhaf, the founder of ASH, an anti-smoking group. The Master Settlement Agreement of 1997, which cost tobacco firms $246 billion, much of it to be spent on anti-smoking measures, meant that after decades of barefaced lying, Big Tobacco found itself outspent and outmanoeuvred.
Campaigners shamelessly ramped up the evidence that the vice harmed others, and attacked anyone who said otherwise. “The effect of other people smoking in my presence is so small it doesn’t worry me,” declared Sir Richard Doll, who with Sir Austin Bradford Hill had proved in the 1950s that smokers were killing themselves. Anti-smoking activists dismissed the eminent scientist as a crank and a tool of the tobacco industry.
“No one is seriously talking about a complete ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants,” said the director of ASH (UK) in 1998, adding that the suggestion was a “scaremongering story by a tobacco front group.” In June 2005 Britain’s public-health minister described talk of such a ban as “false speculation”. Parliament voted it into law just eight months later. Even then campaigners called for further illiberalism, citing everything from litter to toxins from cigarette butts leaching into groundwater and the harm smoking allegedly does to birds.
Other activists now follow anti-smokers’ lead. Flying, drinking bottled water, wearing perfume and burning wood have all been called “the new smoking”; terms like “passive obesity” and “second-hand drinking” do the rounds. “Today it’s marlboro red. Will high-fat foods be next?” asked a tobacco firm in an advertisement in the 1990s. No doubt the ad seemed ridiculously alarmist at the time.
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