An extract from Auberon Waugh's column, 'Rage'. Here he is on smokers rights and the public's terror of death. 16.10.1992
In a hard-hitting editorial at the front of the last issue, Mr Richard Ingrams complained of a ‘surfeit of lethal pieces’, by which he meant that too many contributors had chosen to write about death. It makes me wonder if his heart is in his job. Of course, as one gets older one thinks more about death. It is a subject of increasing interest, although - at any rate in my experience - diminishing anxiety. This week, I wish to enter a much more taboo area to discuss the subject of senile dementia or Alzheimer’s Syndrome.
A curious thing happened to me in Copenhagen last week when I was addressing an international conference of smokers’ rights groups called Smoke- peace, financed by the tobacco industry to promote tolerance and courtesy between smokers and non-smokers. At one point, I was half-way through my speech, pointing out how the decline of religious belief had produced a general terror of death. From this there grew, as religion-substitute, a health fanaticism which played into the hands of health fascists, the sinister, puritanical bigots whose voice echoed through history from the Stoics of ancient Rome to Savonarola’s Florence and was still to be heard in the debate on Aids and alcohol... Suddenly I was interrupted by a strange honking noise from the smoke-filled auditorium.
I was uncertain whether to interpret it as enthusiastic support for my message or as some strange Danish form of barracking. So I ploughed on with my argument.
The terror of death was absolute, I said, and it was no good saying that the risk from passive smoking was very small. Nor was it any good for smokers to talk of their civil rights if, by smoking, they endangered the life and health of non-smokers. The rights of non-smokers would always prevail. They must grasp the nettle, and point out that despite the deliberate lies and distortions of certain elements in the medical profession, no connection of any sort had ever been established between any of the lethal consequences attached to smoking: cancer, emphysema, cardiac infarction - and environmental tobacco smoke, ‘sidestream’ or passive smoking. Propagandists who assert to the contrary are guilty of deliberate manipulation of the truth. They pretend it is in a good cause, but what sort of good cause is it that requires to be supported by lies and distortions? Most gruesome
of all, acting on the principle that any non- smoker who contracts lung cancer must have contracted it through passive smoking rather than through any of the myriad other carcinogens, they have persuaded a few prominent non-smokers dying of lung cancer to parade themselves as victims of passive smoking...
Such unprincipled behaviour on the part of the health fascists required a stronger response than the courtesy and sweet reason with which we had met them to date, I said. At this point, the honking, which had grown louder and louder, turned into a sort of hoot, and I saw a flurry of activity on the floor. A member of the audience was suffering some sort of seizure. Four or five of those present were doctors, and they gathered round the victim, who had fallen sideways off his chair.
Having lost my audience, I abandoned the rostrum while the doctors announced that a member of the audience had suffered an epileptic seizure. Could it have been anything I had said? In a sense, we were fortunate it was not an asthmatic attack, since asthmatic conditions can undoubtedly be aggravated by tobacco smoke, and the symptoms, to an untrained eye, are somewhat similar.
However, what impressed me most, as I returned to my place on the rostrum and resumed my speech after a five-minute break, was the assumption that the unfortunate Danish epileptic was indeed a casualty in the just and necessary war we were fighting. Smokers die, on average, three and a half years younger than non- smokers, but what is wrong with that? By the additional tax they pay, which non- smokers do not pay, smokers provide for half the entire hospital service in Britain. Tobacco is the only known prophylactic against Alzheimer’s Syndrome, also known as senile dementia. It has other beneficial effects, as a stimulant of the central nervous system and as an appetite- suppressant, but its greatest is surely to keep the population moving. Smokers die younger and saner than most, without cluttering the welfare services or damaging the economy by years of unproductive dependency. Smokers should see themselves as the heroes of our society, even if no one else will acknowledge their heroism.
The greatest refutation of our health philosophy, which is scarcely ever mentioned by the medical profession except to demand more money, is to be found in the geriatric explosion. We are never shown the pathetic and horrible sights of our geriatric hostels where rows and rows of patients lie for months and years, helpless and confused, often insensible. That is the medical scandal of our time, not the fact that some choose a shorter, pleasanter life by smoking.