Flashback

Is Smoking a Right? — July 1996

Where there's smoke, there's P.J. O'Rourke.

By From the July 1996 issue

UPI
Send to Kindle

Editor's Note: CVS Caremark has joined the "happy-face fascists" by deciding to remove all tobacco products from its shelves. The company tells us that it is doing this for altruistic reasons: that pharmacies focused on health care cannot logically also sell cancerous cigarettes. As if a company would lose $2 billion for the health of the people. Rather, the company has decided to walk in lock-step with the "safety Nazis" that reign over modern society.

On February 27 last, months before it played host to Mr. O.J. Simpson, the Oxford Union Society met to consider the following proposition: “This House Believes That Smoking is a Right, Not a Privilege.” Jenney Carter-Manning, Pembroke ex-treasurer, opened the arguments in favor, Amanda Pritchard, the St. Anne’s College librarian, spoke first against the motion. Other participants included Lord Harris, president of the Institute for Economic Affairs; Kevin Barron MP, a leading proponent of smoking legislation; Martin Broughton, chief executive of British American Tobacco; Pamela Furness, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health; and Sir Walter Bodmer, director-general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. The debate meandered until one other participant addressed the chamber: Mr. P.J. O’Rourke, introduced as “America’s foremost satirist.” After his remarks, Teller for the Ayes Claire Lomax tallied 162 votes for the motion; Teller for the Noes Robbie Hamilton counted 112 against. Mr. O’Rourke saved the day; his speech is recorded for posterity below:


Most assuredly smoking is a right — it may be a small, stupid, nasty, inconvenient, and very trivial right, but a long accustomed, fiercely defended, and much exercised right it is. However, a further proposition: That to debate smoking rights is also small, stupid, nasty, inconvenient, and very trivial. (No offense to the fine minds here assembled.)

I object to the debate itself on the grounds that this sort of public interchange at an august institution is, by its nature, a political event. And I see no reason that smoking should be subject to political discourse. Smoking is strictly a civil and social activity — a personal matter than can and should be decided among the smoker, his friends and associates who hate the smell, and his doctor who loves the high payments for cancer treatments.

The very fact of this debate is a symptom of the loathsome modern tendency to make all things a part of politics. Politics should be limited in its scope to war, protection of property, and the occasional precautionary beheading of a member of the ruling class.

“Smoking — right or privilege?” The question is a left-wing dialectical leg-hold trap. “Smoking —none of your business or what?” That would be more like it.

Let us look at this question from a — meaning no offense to our worthy opponents — soggy, wet, left perspective: Under modern statist governments nothing is an individual right, because rights entail responsibilities, and we don’t have individual responsibilities anymore — only collective, political responsibilities.

Smoking is not a collective act unless you’re passing around a joint. And that’s another debate. Smoking can’t be a privilege either, because privileges have been eliminated. I mean, we are all egalitarians, aren’t we? Therefore, smoking must be an entitlement — something we receive as our due from the government (You know that the source of all goods and services is the government, don’t you? Of course you do. That’s why you’re about to elect Tony Blair.) Well, entitlement spending is too high. Even the Labour Party admits this. Some entitlements will need to be cut…So let’s cut smoking, because who can defend that?

Thus our opponents ask you to make smoking a political question. And since Britain is a democracy — or will be until the dictatorship of the proletariat arrives — decisions about smoking must be made by democratic means, by majority vote.

But then what life would be like if every decision were made by majority vote. All clothes would be trainers and track suits. The only food available in England would be…English. And we’d all be sleeping with Emma Thompson. She wouldn’t like that.

Actually, however, an increase in the scope of political power has worse results than a mere lot of voting. More political power always means more power for the politicians, more power for the bureaucracies that hire politicians who are too pathetic to get elected, and more power for the various “experts” who are too pathetic even to be hired by the bureaucracies.

The main reason to be opposed to political control of smoking is to keep power — even the smallest and silliest kind of power — out of the hands of such as our opponents here. Oh, they’re lovely people, I’m sure, and very trustworthy around the house. But they are members of a dangerous class — the class that knows what’s good for us better than we do. They are altruists.

You know the difference between an altruist and a charitable person? A charitable person comes to your house and says, “I heard you were hungry so I brought you some food.” An altruist comes to your house and says, “I heard you were hungry so I brought you some OxFam literature.”

I never fully trust the alarms of altruists. Didn’t you ever wonder if Chicken Little had an agenda? I mean, was Chicken Little going around telling all the other chickens that the sky was falling out the goodness of his heart? Or was there something that Chicken Little wanted? Once Chicken Little had all the other chickens convinced that the sky was falling, was there all of a sudden a Labour Party motion to create a Ministry of Falling Sky? And was Chicken Little, perhaps, named Minister of Things That Hit You on the Head?

We all know that a cabinet post is an excellent springboard to higher office. One can almost hear Chicken Little’s campaign speech: “My fellow — all our eggs are in one basket, our coops are guarded by foxes, we’re living on chicken feed, plus the sky is falling. In these troubled times who better to lead us in clucking and pecking and running around after our heads have been cut off than the Honorable C. — a real chicken!”

In the alarms of the altruist there is also an element of moral bullying. “Oh, I know you care about the health effects of smoking,” says the altruist, “but you only care about the effects on you or a few select friends and family members. I care about everyone. I care so much I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. It wrecked my marriage. I care and care and care. And, you see, since I care so much more than you do, I must be a better person than you are. And since I’m a better person than you are, I have the right — nay, the duty — to tell you what to do!

You mustn’t smoke because it harms everyone. “It harms everyone” is the great cry of the new wave totalitarians, the happy-face fascists, safety Nazis, snuggle-puppy Stalinists. You throw these people out the door of politics, and they come crawling back in the window of health. Being fat harms everyone, too — same medical and social costs as smoking, plus the threat of getting sat on in a bus. So next they’ll tell us what to eat. And divorce harms everyone. So they’ll come get in bed with ourselves and our spouses and sort things out. Which brings us to sex. And, God, how this harms everyone — overpopulation, AIDS, rape, prostitution, Madonna. Our opponents — if they but knew their business — would belong to the League for Sexual Repression.

We ought not to be debating tobacco. We ought to be debating the debate. The question is of power and control. Thousands of lives and millions of dollars are wasted by smoking. But millions of lives and billions of dollars are wasted by collectivist states. Fifty million died in the war caused by fascism. Twenty million were killed by the Soviet Union. Untold millions starved in Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

And during all of these horrible events, by the way, everyone concerned wanted a smoke.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article