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Smoking and capitalism – or Chesterton revisited

I’ve been meaning to blog for a couple of days now on the absurd suggestion by the Royal College of Physicians that people should be banned from smoking in their own cars, regardless of whether they have anyone in the car with them or not. As usual, the protective shield under which the argument advances is an exhortation for people to ‘think about the children’, (as if all parents that smoke are de facto indifferent to their child’s welfare), which gives the room for the physicians to call for a complete ban, accompanied by a sheepish shrug of apology to those without children who might quite like to have a fag in their own car on the way home from a stressful day at work, thank you very much.

One need hardly dwell on the idiocies of such pronouncements – anyone with even half an instinct for liberty could articulate them. One can leave aside, also, the sometimes dubious basis upon which the risks are articulated (there is dispute aplenty on this, from the extent of the danger of passive smoking to the far greater risks faced by other air pollutants, such as car fumes). Lastly, one can also leave aside the economic and cultural arguments: the money smokers put into the Exchequer relative to what they take out (via NHS); the pubs closing as smokers sit at home with a cheap supermarket beer rather than traipse outside and freeze whilst having the odd fag; the gangs of boozed up punters stood outside pubs having a smoke, getting cold and miserable, and invariably ending up intimidating passers-by or slogging it out with each other.

No, aside from all that what really had me irked was the way smokers are persecuted by health authorities far more vigorously than is really warranted, as ‘health experts’ take it upon themselves to direct our lifestyles, rather than treat our maladies. At root this is a new Puritanism, and at the heart of this Puritanism is social snobbery; the young man having a pint of ale and cigarette at his local is scorned upon as irresponsible and uncouth, whilst the metropole having a glass of champers and a cigar is somehow considered chic and sophisticated. The outright ban on smoking in public places is an example, if nothing else, of precisely this snobbery: people in bingo halls and working men’s clubs up and down the land are banned from having a smoke (even if the vast majority of them want to) because some café-dwelling urbanites would like to have a frappuccino free from cigarette smoke.

At this point it is worth bringing in G K Chesterton, who had his own theories about such matters (and talked of the ‘diabolical idiocy that can regard beer or tobacco as in some way evil and unseemly in themselves’). In his book Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays, he writes…

Every religion, apart from open devil worship, must appeal to a virtue or the pretence of a virtue. But a virtue, generally speaking, does some good to everybody. It is therefore necessary to distinguish among the people it was meant to benefit those whom it does benefit. Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else. And if you think this unwarranted, I will put before you one plain question. There are some pleasures of the poor that may also mean profits for the rich: there are other pleasures of the poor which cannot mean profits for the rich? Watch this one contrast, and you will watch the whole creation of a careful slavery.

In the last resort the two things called Beer and Soap end only in a froth. They are both below the high notice of a real religion. But there is just this difference: that the soap makes the factory more satisfactory, while the beer only makes the workman more satisfied. Wait and see if the Soap does not increase and the Beer decrease. Wait and see whether the religion of the Servile State is not in every case what I say: the encouragement of small virtues supporting capitalism, the discouragement of the huge virtues that defy it. Many great religions, Pagan and Christian, have insisted on wine. Only one, I think, has insisted on Soap. You will find it in the New Testament attributed to the Pharisees.

Now, imagine that: Puritanism underpinned by a capitalist class driven primarily by concern for the health and productivity of its (current and future) workforce. Perhaps then, if one was cynical and a touch imaginative, one might be inclined to see in the endless costs/benefits analyses of the anti-smoking junta certain strange parallels with Chesterton’s explanation…

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