Puff the Magic Dragon
What a ridiculous and toxic miasma obscures the current debate on smoking. Yesterday, the government’s Health Improvement Bill, which sets out its proposals for a ban, was delayed. Apparently the prohibitionists – health secretary Patricia Hewitt and her ally Tessa Jowell – are being dogged by “Doc” John Reid and Jack “˜Man o” Straw, who wish to engineer a compromise allowing for “smoking pubs” that don’t serve food.
Some cynics suggest that Reid – an ex-health secretary himself – wants the issue fudged because he’s worried Labour would lose working-class votes with a ban. This from the man who said: “˜People in lower socio-economic categories have very few pleasures in life and one is smoking.” A statement worthy of a duchess contemplating the “˜plebs” through the wrong end of her lorgnette.
Or maybe Reid is still creeping out to the Houses of Parliament bike sheds for a quick drag, and feels it would be hypocritical and against his own proclivities to back a total ban. Whatever. The truth is that on this issue the government is sucking wearily on a fag end. The tipping point has been reached in England, and whatever the tobacco industry and various, so-called “˜libertarians” say, a blanket ban on smoking in public places would be generally supported and universally accepted.
The majority of adults now don’t smoke, and of the remainder who do, many would gratefully seize on the opportunity a public ban afforded to give up. The ban has worked in Ireland – in Italy too. If Reid thinks sealed “smoking rooms” on licensed premises will keep smokers ticking his box, then he’s never been in one. I have in New York, and after emerging I felt like a smoked whelk.
I myself am still a smoker. I smoke cigarettes, I smoke large Havana cigars, I smoke calabashes loaded with the strongest shags I can lay my yellowing fingers on. So long as the government aren’t going to ban me from lighting up in the street or the privacy of my own home I support a total ban. Drug laws – and nicotine is a drug – should be based on what people actually want to do, not on what politicians want them to do. Most people neither want to smoke in pubs and restaurants, nor breathe other people’s smoke. Go figure, Doctor John.
Blanket bans on bird imports, warnings on cooking poultry and eating raw eggs. Stockpiling of vaccines and the dithering of ministers as the avian flu epidemic begins to take on the lineaments of true disaster. How reminiscent of the run-up to Foot and Mouth and BSE it all seems. In neither of those earlier crises was the government’s response seen as anything but an unmitigated disaster: animals were needlessly slaughtered, farmers went to the wall. The FaM outbreak wasn’t contained at all – and the repercussions of BSE are still being played out. And those were diseases that only affected animals! Think how much worse it will be with a virus whose true goal in life is pullulating through human lungs. I’m intentionally personifying HN15 (or its erstwhile variants), because viruses are creatures too, and this particular virus hasn’t evolved, yet, so that it can be transmitted between human carriers. As things stand, all the stockpiling of antiviral drugs does is push up the share prices of Big Pharma. While all the control measures are doing is to slow down the rate of mutation at tremendous cost.
I have another strategy: do nothing. Let it rip. The strain of HN15 that is human-transmissible may not be as lethal as feared. Indeed, all the measures aimed at blocking it may only make it wilier. Once the new flu strain emerges we can concentrate resources on ameliorating its symptoms and creating an effective vaccine – until it exists, we should do nothing. As the medics have been quick to point out, these flu pandemics normally travel around the world as regularly as Tony Blair. And if he and his political pals can’t even abolish a glaring human problem like global poverty, how the hell are they going to defeat an enemy they can’t even see?
To Paris for the weekend, where I have to counter the demands of my two companions: a four-year-old and a 15-year-old. The little boy is satisfied by a toy bought in the Gallerie Lafayette and a trip to the Jardin D’Acclimatation, a rather cosy theme park in the Bois de Boulogne. The big boy is a rather trickier proposition. No, the Musee D’Orsay doesn’t enthuse him – nor does Rodin’s sculpture garden. He’ll submit to a trot around Sacre Coeur and Les Invalides – but it doesn’t exactly float his boat. No, it transpires that what he considers the height of cool, is sitting on the terrace of the Café Flor, sipping a naughty demi pression, and watching the chic crowds troll along the Boulevard Saint Germain. And you know what – he’s absolutely right.
Come il Faut
To Home House for the launch of Peter York’s new book, ˜Dictators’ Homes. The club itself is irrefutably tasteful, the chattering guests are witty and well-turned out. I asked York, the avatar of all style pundits, whether any of the dictators in the book had good taste, and he conceded that Hitler’s Berghof – the Nazi leader’s mountain retreat in the Austrian Alps – was surprisingly so, albeit in an inflated, kitschy manner. In truth, York’s book struck me as a little too tasteful: well written, beautifully designed. The subject really demands a collaboration between the art director of Zoo magazine and Andrew Morton.