Jennie Bristow talked to Devil's advocate Marjorie Nicholson, director of the smokers' rights campaign Forest
A fire in the FOREST
Forest is clearly one of those campaigns for which the clever acronym preceded the rather garbled name. The Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco was set-up in 1981 to challenge the anti-smoking lobby. Funded partly by donations from its 7000-odd supporters and partly by the tobacco industry, Forest has become the representative body of one of new Britain's most unpopular causes: smokers who want to smoke and resent the growing restrictions on their activities.
Rather them than me, you might think, as tobacco companies are banned from advertising, yet more tax is added to the price of a packet of fags and smokers are hounded out of respectable society. Yet Forest director Marjorie Nicholson is not in the least apologetic. For her, defending the rights of smokers is about protecting consumers, protecting minorities and upholding democracy against the restrictive tendencies of modern government.
'Over the years we have seen a lot of very welcome moves to deal with discrimination in society', she declares. 'It has a lot to do with the moves towards political correctness. We have had a whole new style of language and attitude develop. There are a lot of things you cannot say. But the one group of people against whom discrimination is legitimised is smokers.'
Discrimination against smokers, argues Nicholson, has very real consequences. She refers to the cases of GPs refusing to treat patients who smoke, smokers not being allowed to foster children or to have custody of their own children, and companies refusing to employ smokers. Governments are legitimising that prejudice, she says, through their attacks on smokers, and this strikes to the very core of democracy. 'Fundamental to a democracy is that we protect minorities - we may not agree with their argument, but we try to accommodate it. Some things obviously can't be accommodated, like paedophilia. But for some reason smoking is considered a legitimate thing to go for.'
So smoking is not comparable to paedophilia: presumably even the most rabid anti-smoker would concede that. But why have smokers become such a target of animosity in recent years?
Nicholson has many theories about this, some more wacky than others. One is that society needs an enemy, and at the end of the Cold War the West turned on an easy target: 'you can see smokers, and you can smell them.' Another is that the decline of Christianity in the West and the belief in something 'outside ourselves' has led to an obsession with health and an almost 'morbid preoccupation with living life as long as possible'. Her explanation for the Labour government's propensity to clamp down on smokers rests on the party's traditional distrust of big business, and the fact that the tobacco industry has historically supported the Conservative Party. Governments see healthcare as too expensive, and have therefore had a go at smokers.
I find these theories implausible, and even Nicholson seems to have her doubts about some of them. But convoluted as her theories might be, some of Forest's insights do shed light on the problems of the current anti-smoking crusade.
Nicholson is particularly sensitive to the line that has been drawn in recent years between 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' lifestyle activities: '£500 million per year is spent treating sporting injuries, but people are not taxed for taking part in sport because it is considered to be a good thing.' She has picked up on the increasing penalties that the government has been placing on motorists, who, like smokers, subsidise everybody else through the extra taxes they pay. Nicholson points out that the government is quite willing to spend money on certain activities, but only if they are acceptable to the all-healthy, non-polluting world of New Labour.
In relation to the compensation claims being levelled at tobacco companies in the United States, Nicholson seems to think that there is something slightly daft about the companies caving in. 'It is no different to somebody suing a motor manufacturer because you are speeding down the motorway and you have a crash going at 70 miles an hour. Whose fault is it - you for driving at that speed, or the motor manufacturer for making a car capable of going at that speed? You are aware of the risks and you are in control of what you are doing at a given time, so then who should take the blame?' She has a point there; blaming the manufacturer might be a good wheeze to let you off the hook, but you have to be prepared to sacrifice your self-respect in the process by claiming you were not in control.
Marjorie Nicholson thinks that the litigation that has gone on in America will not happen in Britain: 'the general view here seems to be, well, smokers know the risks and if they decide to go ahead and smoke then, well, tough luck.' I hope her predictions are right, but I have my doubts. Nineties Britain is a place where everybody is falling over themselves to play the victim rather than the villain, preferring to whinge to the courts about how they have been harmed by a product rather than recognising their own role in using that product.
I prefer that wise old barrow-boy saying, you pays your money, you takes your choice; and anyway, who ever believed that smoking was good for you? Of course, we can all be cynical about the tobacco industry's attempts to defend their profits by packaging them in the language of smokers' rights, and we can all be a bit sceptical when Forest tries to downplay the health risks of smoking. It is not a healthy lifestyle choice, and lighting up a fag does not somehow strike a blow for democracy and freedom.
However challenging the growing restrictions on our personal behaviour in the purified, puritanical new Britain is something that needs to be done. Forest may not get much support from the sterilised corners of Islington coffee houses, but at least it has the phrase 'enjoy smoking' on its letterhead, and a director who refuses to grovel.
Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997