Saturday, July 12, 2008

Anti-Smoking hysteria reaches new heights

This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

Complaints to the BBC after Top Gear presenters lit up pipes containing herbal tobacco in a light-hearted RAF parody scene. A pub stormed by riot police after a customer refused to put out a cigarette. A threatening letter and a £75 fine sent by a local council to a woman who had dropped a cigarette butt.

Thought the current wave of anti-smoking hysteria sweeping Britain couldn't get any sillier? Then think again. At the BMA's annual conference earlier this week, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the organisation's head of science and ethics, urged film censors to give "pro-smoking" films an 18 certificate. Dr Nathanson cited the film Independence Day, in which hero Will Smith celebrates victory against aliens by lighting up a cigar as an example of a pro-smoking film. And if smoking has to be portrayed on our TV screens, Dr Nathanson would like to see storylines being developed that show the damaging consequences.

If Dr Nathanson and the BMA get their way – and in the present tobaccophobic climate it is a reasonable bet that they will – a classic children's film such as 101 Dalmatians would need an 18 certificate all on account of Cruella de Vil's penchant for puffing on her cigarette holder. And smoking soap characters would have to be shown going through the agonies of emphysema/lung cancer/bronchitis and all the other dreadful illnesses which smoking can cause, just so viewers don't get the wrong idea.

We live in a society in which we are bombarded with images of violence at the cinema, on television and on our computer screens, and yet Dr Nathanson thinks the biggest problem is Will Smith lighting a cigar. Never mind the number of violent deaths in Independence Day; it's the celebratory cigar that causes the offence.

In truth, Dr Nathanson doesn't have too much to worry about: film and TV programme makers are already bending over backwards to appease the anti-smoking lobby. Ian Fleming's James Bond is a 60-a-day man (Balkan and Turkish with three gold bands on the filter), but in the latest Bond film, Casino Royale, 007 is a smoke-free paragon – a man fully in tune with the rather strange morals of the first decade of the 21st century. "I can blow off someone's head at close range and splatter blood, but I can't light a good Cuban cigar," says the film's star, Daniel Craig. In the 2004 film version of Thunderbirds, that hitherto most stylish of smokers, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, was deprived of her trademark cigarette holder. And in last year's BBC production of Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous detective was, for the first time, sans pipe.

How different things were 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, even the contestants on University Challenge were allowed to smoke. In Joan Bakewell's famous Late Night Line Up interview with Harold Pinter, both interviewer and interviewee smoked freely; today they'd both face fines and censure.

No one is disputing that smoking constitutes a health risk. But a society that gets into more of a strop over fictional characters puffing on pipes, cigars and cigarette holders than people blasting each other to kingdom come, is surely one which has lost all sense of perspective.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear in all you say. It just goes to show that these people are just of the picky type - especially when there are many more important issues of concern. I have always stood by the quote "You can take a horse to water but can`t make it drink. I have watched Sherlock Holmes many times - but I do not smoke a pipe.

neil craig said...

I agree with you Neil. The thing that worries me is that there hasn't been any rioting in the streets.

Not even a bunch of people defiantly lighting up in some of the orger (but still enclosed) railway stations.

You can't stop the invasion of Iraq by a a demonstration because it isn't happening here but even a few hundred people lighting up, refusing to give their names |& being dragged off to the cells & 3 hours of policemen filling in forms, would make the whole thing unworkable.

Are we really, as a people, that submissive? The ban started in Scotland & I did not previously think submissiveness to be a Scottish characteristic. This bodes ill for the future.

Anonymous said...

"In Joan Bakewell's famous Late Night Line Up interview with Harold Pinter, both interviewer and interviewee smoked freely; today they'd both face fines and censure."

And you would otherwise describe them as "libertines" no doubt.

Anonymous said...

With you 100% there Neil.

Anonymous said...

I'm almost tempted to start smoking, just to feel like a renegade.
Does anyone know the real reason for the smokng ban? It's not public health because this would open the door for bans on an almost uncountable number of things. Presumably the government liked the tax, and with inevitable privatisation of our NHS the expenditure on COPD patients is presumably only a short term concern anyway.

Anonymous said...

How about this for a real reason:
The smoking ban has stopped many thousands of people from going to the pub. Public order and social control are more easily maintained if people stay in watching telly. Thus, the smoking ban falls under the same category as the near blanket ban on live music in pubs. The great majority of politicians (of all parties) are drawn from the hereditary ruling class, who don't go into pubs, so are personally unaffected by any of these developments, which means they don't have to care.
Does this hypothesis stand up to any scrutiny?

olching said...

Davros, I think there is some truth in that. There is nothing the establishment fears more than a group of people drinking and smoking and talking about things. It's dangerous territory for them.

I think it's also part of a new wave of puritanism and the elevation of scienceabove culture.

Neil Clark said...

davros and olching: agreed. You've got to remember in whose benefit modern Britain plc is run: the banks and monopoly capital. They don't mind us drinking inordinate amounts in private equity owned chain bars, but what they're not to keen on is the old local/the working man's club or the social club, where we can meet, chat, smoke and compare notes on the way our society is going. If we don't want to be herded into the chain bars they'd rather we stay at home, where we can do less harm.
They want an atomised, lonely society, they don't want us to
have a great social life, only that we are great consumers.
The sad thing is that this trend is spreading to Europe- I really fear for the future of the wonderful Dutch brown bars now that they've passed a draconian ban in the Netherlands. The brown bars are great places where you can meet and get into conversations with people of all walks of life- not what our masters really want.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, it's even worse than the elevation of science above culture - it's a the conversion of science into politics - the science of anti-smoking is not science at all - it's pure politics.

Anonymous said...

I know we disagree vigorously on quite a few things, but I'm solidly in your corner on this issue...

Taking away Sherlock's pipe and Lady Penelope's cigarette holder? Blasphemy! Do they also edit the bit when Sherlock describes a conundrum as "a three-pipe problem?"

Neil Clark said...

Douglas: Exactly. The criminal classes of old London town must be laughing their heads off: a Sherlock Holmes without a pipe is a far less effective Sherlock Holmes. But hey, who cares about the effectiveness of the world's greatest detective, the most important thing is that he's not seen to light up.

Anonymous said...

Another contributing factor to the current climate of moral panic and censure might be that the hapless floundering of the Blair/Brown administration has exposed the whole infrastructure of power as not only wholly corrupt and venal (the Thatchler Reich did that nicely, and we can confidently expect a future tory regime to scale effortlessly previously undreamed of peaks of sleaze), but also utterly clueless and incompetent. Wriggling like worms on a hook, they are attempting to turn the spotlight elsewhere. Such is the simplicity of their thinking (itself a symptom of their detachment from the everyday reality of the population over whom they rule) that they have fallen for the recent Hollywood stereotyping which dictates that only bad people smoke, smoking currently is cinematic shorthand for "evil-doer". Thus the vilification and social ostracisation of smokers must look good on paper to privately educated, socially cosseted career politicians desperate to cling onto some measure of power.
Just a thought.