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Steppin' out for a smoke

The Local · 11 May 2009, 17:00

Published: 11 May 2009 17:00 GMT+02:00

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Having lived in Berlin for the better part of three years, I’ve been asked to write something about my ‘right’ to smoke here. But I’m not sure I have one. The real question, I think, is: who has the right to forbid me to smoke, and on what grounds? Consider the following:

(1) Tobacco is legal in Germany.

(2) Smokers are adults.

(3) Smokers contribute enormous amounts of tax revenue.

(4) Pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants are private property.

(5) If some people don’t like smoke, this is a matter of taste and therefore for the free market to sort out, not the government.

(6) A decent modern ventilation system can render smoke virtually unnoticeable.

(7) ‘Second-hand,’ or ‘passive’ smoke hurts no one anyway.

This all seems pretty obvious to me, but the last point may need some explanation. Seven years of research has convinced me that the potential risks involved in smoking are currently hugely exaggerated, for reasons which have more to do with politics than health.

In the case of ‘second-hand’ smoke, though, anyone who really looks at the evidence – how the studies are done, who pays for them, what the statistics really mean – is soon reminded of the old story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

You remember the one: the Emperor thinks he’s wearing a fabulous invisible costume, and no one has the nerve to tell him he’s naked because, well, he’s the Emperor! We’re not so impressed by emperors these days, or by priests or popes or politicians. But we seem to practically swoon at the sight of a doctor’s white coat. That’s why, more and more, it’s the uniform of choice for anyone in authority who wants to nag you, bully you, raise your taxes and generally push you around.

In Germany, the ‘official’ figure for yearly deaths from ‘passive smoke’ has been, for the last four years, exactly 3,301 – two-thirds of whom, incidentally, are supposedly over 75 years old and one-third over 85. This comes from a cancer research centre in Heidelberg. How do they know? Well, they don’t. They have just cherry-picked a few dubious statistics from a few trashy studies, and done computer projections from them. They can’t actually prove even one death.

I’m happy to say there seems to be a bit more (healthy!) scepticism about this sort of thing in Germany than, say, the UK. I’m delighted, too, that in the face of court rulings, fierce resistance, and half-hearted enforcement, smoking bans are unravelling in Berlin and the rest of the country.

Very few people, it seems, wanted them in the first place, and even most non-smokers favour some kind of freedom of choice. After all, a Berlin Eckkneipe, or corner pub, is typically a place where the owner, the bartenders, and most of the customers smoke. How far are authorities willing to go to stop them? The Nazis were fierce anti-smokers, but even they did not ban smoking in pubs.

There are bigger things bothering me than some nebulous ‘right to smoke.’ Basic democratic principles (freedom of choice, property rights, free enterprise, tolerance) are increasingly regarded, by politicians and lobby groups acting in the name of ‘health,’ as nothing more than obstacles to be scornfully swept aside.

Story continues below…

People need to look beyond their personal prejudices and wake up. The phenomenal recent success of the anti-smoking movement is evidence not of the ascendancy of a noble cause, but of phenomenal infusions of cash. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been extorted out of the US tobacco industry in behind-the-scenes deals like the Master Settlement Agreement. Add to that punitive taxation and especially, the enthusiastic support of the pharmaceutical industry – which wants to sell nicotine products and antidepressants to the world’s 1.2 billion smokers. This is how a fairly small network of prohibitionist fanatics grows into a juggernaut which simply intimidates any opposition into silence.

Anti-tobacco in Europe is driven to a large extent by the World Health Organisation – in an explicit partnership with three of the world’s biggest drug companies. AIDS, typhoid and dysentery are rampant in developing countries, and two million children a year die just from lack of clean water. Yet the WHO now prefers to bully the generally healthy citizens of prosperous countries over ‘lifestyle’ issues such as tobacco, alcohol, diet, obesity, and road safety.

Every aspect of our personal lives is being dictated, more and more, by unelected and unaccountable bodies like the WHO or various bit of the EU bureaucracy. If you don’t smoke, you may think it’s none of your business. But don’t kid yourself. If you’re a few pounds ‘overweight,’ or drink more than two government-defined ‘units’ of alcohol per day, or eat ‘unhealthy’ foods, then you’re next in line to be scapegoated and stigmatised, denied health care or insurance, denied jobs or housing, forbidden to adopt children . . . the list is growing daily.

These things are already happening in nanny states like the UK, Canada and Australia, and Germany can’t be so far behind. Nevertheless there is some cause for cautious optimism here. Germany, at least, won’t be the first country to sleep-walk into a joyless, squeaky-clean, socially-engineered future. So light a cigarette, raise a glass, and drink to that healthy disrespect for authority which is still alive and well in the bars of Berlin.

Click here to find out which smoky venues Joe Jackson will playing in Europe this summer.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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