Saturday 22 June 2019

Ten years of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist

Boisdale, 2009

As Simon Clark notes on his blog, today marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first book, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking. You can see some photos of the launch event, which was also FOREST's 30th birthday party, here.

I've been re-reading the last couple of chapters of the book to see how it stands up. What struck me was how many things that I thought were relatively recent developments were already underway by 2009. In my mind's eye, anti-obesity campaigners had started on fat and only turned on sugar in the last few years, but re-reading Velvet Glove I realised that chocolate and biscuits were already in their cross-hairs in the noughties. I had also forgotten that local councils were denying planning permission for takeway shops more than a decade ago.

Most of my predictions about the slippery slope have been confirmed by events. The war on perfume never gathered the momentum that I thought it might, although when I was in Toronto recently I was in a building that advertised itself as a 'scent-free zone'. 'Electrosensitivity' never really took off, perhaps because the ubiquity of smartphones and wi-fi made the cost of having this trendy diagnosis too high. Even the most high profile 'sufferer' - arch anti-smoker and former WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland - is now using a mobile phone.

Of course, there are some things that no sane person could have predicted, such as Thailand banning smoking in the home on the pretext of preventing domestic violence, but there isn't much I would change about the book if I could have my time over.

Having said that, I keep meaning to revise and expand Velvet Glove for a second edition. One day I will get around to it, but it is a big job. The rise of e-cigarettes, which began shortly after publication, probably requires a whole chapter of its own, and there are a whole slew of policies - plain packaging, display bans etc. - that were only a glint in the eyes of a fanatic in 2009.

The obvious endgame for the anti-smoking lobby has always been prohibition. By the time I get round to updating the book, tobacco prohibition may well underway. It would be the natural final chapter.

Beverly Hills recently got the ball rolling by announcing a ban on the sale of tobacco and vaping products. I was struck by the comments of Doug Blanke, Executive Director of the Public Health Law Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which brought to mind Billy Sunday's hilariously over-optimistic speech about 'John Barleycorn' when alcohol Prohibition began...

“The tobacco epidemic is the greatest manmade catastrophe of all time: it’s on track to kill a billion smokers before the century is out.  But we may look back and say that this was the day that changed all that. Because with this bold action, Beverly Hills is showing the world an alternative path.  A path to zero tobacco deaths. To a world where we don’t just ‘control’ tobacco products, we phase them out completely. A world free of tobacco-related death and disease.”

In January, it will be exactly a century since Prohibition began. Are we destined to repeat the same mistake again? I suspect so. Once Beverly Hills has had the ban in place for a while there will be studies published claiming that it has been a glorious success. California will then follow, then whole countries. Who will be first? Thailand? Australia? Singapore?

As Laurent Huber, Executive Director of Action on Smoking and Health says:

“Beverly Hills is the first domino falling for tobacco sales, and other jurisdictions with no doubt soon follow their lead.”

Remember when all they wanted was non-smoking sections in restaurants? How things snowball.

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