Riding The High Horse–The Problem with Moral Crusades

The problem with moral crusades

By George Gay

In his foreword to a new report, Smokefree Ideology, the director of Forest, Simon Clark, says that tobacco smoking cessation has become a moral crusade. This comment pulled me up sharply because, given that Forest is a pro-smoker group, it seems to imply, among other things, that moral crusades in general are wrong-headed. But can what is “moral” be “wrong-headed”? Does morality now exist simply in the mind of the individual as an ethical code formed of little more than personal preferences, so that what is moral to me might not be to you, at least as things stand today? I know that in an increasingly secular world we, as individuals, are said to have been left standing, confused, on the cliff edge of morality with nobody but ourselves to show the way ahead, but surely there is still some joint enterprise we can agree on as representing morality. Or is there?

Anyway, let me leave that thought for the time being and concentrate on the report, which is based on a study of the current tobacco-smoking policies of local authorities in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and which is subtitled, “How local authorities are waging war on choice and personal freedom.” It was commissioned, funded and published by Forest, which describes itself as a voice and friend of the smoker and which is supported by British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher (a member of the Japan Tobacco group of companies); and it was written by Josie Appleton, whose biography describes her, in part, as director of the Manifesto Club civil liberties group and author of Officious – Rise of the Busybody State.

I certainly agree with Appleton—assuming I have correctly interpreted what she has written—that tobacco smokers are often treated appallingly, and I support their right to indulge in what is a legal habit without being subjected to petty restrictions that perform no useful function and often appear to be fig leaves for helping various authorities cover failures to take meaningful actions in other, more difficult areas. Take, for instance, a policy that has been much in the news lately whereby tobacco smoking would be banned or further restricted at pavement cafes. Given that, according to the World Health Organization figures on annual premature deaths worldwide, secondhand smoke accounts for 1.2 million while outdoor pollution accounts for 4.2 million, it would seem that tobacco smoking is being targeted because it is easy and cheap to “denormalize” smokers but devilishly difficult and expensive to tackle pollution.

It is difficult to understand how many of the restrictions that Appleton details can be seen as being put in place to protect the health of nonsmokers or even smokers, and, given that it is not the responsibility of local authorities, or any other authority, otherwise to police the activities of people engaging in legal activities, the actions of these authorities have to be seen as being based on something other than their obligations. But does that something amount to a moral crusade, or is there something else going on here, at least in respect of some restrictions?

There might be, and I think it is beholden for us to look as closely as we can at these issues. For instance, much is made in the report about restrictions on tobacco smoking in public parks and other outdoor spaces, and it is certainly my opinion that it is ludicrous to believe that a whiff of secondhand smoke is going to harm a nonsmoker walking in a park or that a glimpse of a smoker indulging her habit is going to have nonsmokers or ex-smokers walking zombie-like to their nearest tobacco retailer. But there could be another explanation for what these authorities are doing. They could be banning tobacco smoking in parks because the cost of picking up and disposing properly the butts carelessly discarded by smokers impacts health budgets. It cannot be ruled out, especially since local authorities in Britain have been starved of cash by successive national governments obsessed with centralizing control.

It is certainly important to ask whether what is being done will make the public significantly safer—safer to a point that justifies restrictions on their liberties or at least on the liberties of some. But getting this balance right is devilishly difficult. For instance, up to a point, libertarians are correct to say that people should be allowed to wallow in fatty, sugary foods, alcohol and gambling—all legal activities—if that is how they want to spend their money and time, but they are correct only in so far that these people live in isolation with only their ethical codes for company. Once they start operating within societies, their partners, children, neighbors and the public should be allowed to have a say at least. Specifically, in societies that claim to have the interests of children at the top of their priorities at all times, it would be odd if parents didn’t come under some sort of pressure not to expose their offspring to such things as fat- and sugar-laden foods that, I am told, condemn them to a shortened lifetime of obesity and ill health. And perhaps, by the same token, parents are almost bound to come under some level of pressure to stop smoking tobacco around children.

How democratic?

One of Appleton’s major beefs—it is the first of her “key points”—is that there is a new wave of restrictions on tobacco smoking being introduced not through parliamentary legislation but through local authority policies, “many of which are not subjected to democratic scrutiny.” And this is where she and I fall out of step.

Let’s firstly consider how democratic is the national government in the U.K., and the first thing to note is that it is hugely London-centric. Also, it is possible for a political party in the U.K. to win an 80-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, the lower house, with less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Looking at the current parliament, the Conservative Party (the current ruling party) has one seat for every 38,000 votes it won whereas the Green Party attracted 866,000 votes and won one seat.

There is no obligation for a Member of Parliament to live in the constituency that she nominally represents, though this is becoming increasingly unimportant as more and more power is being handed over to unelected “advisors,” some of whom, believe me, you wouldn’t want to give house room to.

At the same time, the public has more or less no say in who sits in the House of Lords, our grossly obese upper house, whose membership has swelled to about 830 people, appointed through old-boy, Buggins’ turn and nepotistic networks aimed at stuffing this house not with those most able but with a majority of lackeys of whichever is the party forming the current government. Twenty-six bishops of the Church of England sit in the upper house by dint simply of their being bishops.

It is difficult to make a direct comparison between the democratic credentials of the national government and those of local authorities because, to my knowledge, the latter embrace at least seven different types of authorities. But the list of councils in the annex of the report seems to indicate that most of the authorities studied (283 out of 372 responded to Freedom of Information requests) were borough or equivalent authorities, and I can report that the councilors representing my borough council are, almost by definition, part of the community they represent and are readily available. I can walk to my local town hall in 10 minutes.

So, to my way of thinking, the democratic deficit lies at the national level not at the local level. And it is surely from the national level where smokers’ main problems arise: grossly unfair levels of taxes, public tobacco smoking bans and standardized packaging, which, Forest says, attempts to infantilize smokers.

Careful what you wish for

Of course, you have to be careful in wishing for “democracy.” Surveys in various countries often find that, say, 85 percent of people are in favor of a proposed restriction on tobacco smoking while 15 percent are against. And, of course, if you look up the nonsmoker/smoker split in the population, it’s 85/15. In fact, the proportion of people who support such restrictions is often higher than the proportion of nonsmokers in the population because some smokers have become convinced that their habit is so disgusting that they deserve to be persecuted. And this sort of democracy, the tyranny of the majority, will no doubt come into play as local authorities use such figures to justify introducing no-tobacco-smoking policies in public housing. And once they are introduced, the ideology of the market economy will take over and ensure that all such housing eventually becomes tobacco-smoke-free because it won’t be worth the trouble of catering to the 15 percent.

As I understand it, the report is aimed at encouraging local authorities to think twice before they bring in unnecessary rules on tobacco smoking that merely interfere in the personal lives and habits of employees and authority residents. But will it achieve this? I somehow doubt it. Given the report’s provenance, I would imagine that those in charge at the various authorities will feel free to dismiss it as a moral crusade. And we all know what happens when opposing moral crusades collide.

My crusade

Which brings us back to the murky world of morality and takes us to an issue concerning the aging of my brain. You see, believe it or not, I started out meaning to write a story on organic tobacco and somehow got diverted.

As I have done annually at this time of year for a number of years now, I recently sent out emails to companies who had previously shown interest in organic tobacco, inviting them to take part in a story on this style of leaf. This year, some companies didn’t reply, some replied but said they were no longer involved in organic tobacco while only one replied positively. It has been my observation that interest in organic tobacco has been decreasing now for a number of years, and I have to ask myself why this might be. After all, we are living an environmental nightmare that we are not going to wake up from unless—and here comes my moral crusade—we start taking positive action, such as stopping spraying unnecessary chemicals onto crops, including tobacco crops.

Cigarette manufacturers have been good at addressing environmental issues in respect of their manufacturing facilities, but this is partly because these companies are profit driven and they can see the cost advantage in, for instance, cutting down on the power that they use. Having said that, I am certain they would be willing to embrace organic tobacco more widely than presently even if there were a cost increase, but there would have to be some sort of incentive. For instance, they would need to be able to write on packs that the cigarettes inside contained organic tobacco, with the rider that this did not make them less risky than other cigarettes. But there’s the rub.

A moral crusade seems to have been mounted against such statements being made because, it is claimed, smokers and nonsmokers alike would be led to believe that such cigarettes were less risky than other cigarettes. Come on. Let’s get real. This is a moral crusade that will result in no benefit to smokers and that will mean that the rest of us will not be able to enjoy the benefit of a major crop being produced in a way that will provide relief for the environment. It makes no sense at all. It is wrong-headed.