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Vienna | 28.2.2008 | 14:24 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

 
 
Liberty, Nazis and Prohibition
  Robert Proctor is an American science historian and Professor of the History of Science at Stanford University. He's known for his attacks on the tobacco industry and what he sees as its deliberate ploys to use inaccurate or misleading scientific data to sow the seeds of doubt about the harmful nature of cigarette smoke.

Indeed, he coined the term "agnatology" to describe the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt.

While a professor of the history of science at the University of Pennsylvania in 1999, he became the first historian to testify against the tobacco industry.
 
 
 
  I spoke to him about the question of liberty in the debate over tobacco legislation. Proctor told me the tobacco industry would be delighted that the issue has come to the forefront of the smoking debate:

Robert Proctor: The industry has used liberty to its great advantage.

That was a deliberate plan beginning particularly in the 1980's in the USA where the tobacco industry tried to wrap itself in the flag and tried to equate smoking with a form of free speech and establish smoking in people's minds as an inalienable right. And the idea was that you either had a world of tolerance where smokers and non-smokers would live together in harmony, or you'd live in a world of intolerance and prohibition and danger if not to say Fascism. So they were able to play this freedom card very effectively for their political purposes.

You know, Austria is actually a funny situation. It has the highest female smoking rate in the world and it also has this unfortunate history with Nazism, where the Nazis and, particularly Hitler, were strongly anti-tobacco?

 Robert Proctor
 
 
  I wanted to ask you about that. What role has the fact that the Nazis were so prominent in early anti-tobacco legislation played in the way the debate has been carried out in this part of the world?

It's definitely true that the powerful anti-smoking movement under the Nazis did cast a huge post- war shadow over Europe; and it basically meant a perception that if you were anti-tobacco you must be some kind of Nazi. And this is one of the reasons that I think the political left was so neutralized in its critique of smoking.
 
 
 
  But we are talking about a regime that was in power some 70 years ago now. Does this period still have an impact on the way the tobacco debate is being led nowadays?

Oh sure. Everyone knows about the Nazis and how terrible they were. It's not a direct line memory; it's simply something that has been resurrected to serve a purpose. In the United States the more common approach is to resurrect memories of prohibition. The idea is that if you are a clean air advocate, you must be some sort of prohibitionist.

So one of the things the tobacco industry is able to do is to give an antiquarian or quaint or tyrannical interpretation to any kind of movement to get clean air. And that's really what needs to be overcome.


Are there any similarities between the calls for stricter tobacco legislation and the folly of the prohibition of alcohol in the USA of the 1920's?

Well, of course, there are some parallels but also some important differences. The move to prohibition was part of a puritanical nanny-state crusade that was essentially against thrills and fun. It was anti-dancing, anti-gambling, anti-make-up for women and anti-masturbation. So it got mixed up with all sorts of highly questionable moralistic assumptions.

Some of them may still be with us today, but the big difference is that now we know the massive health harms that were really only hinted at in this early period.

Now we know that 5 million people are dying every year from tobacco and that it is more addictive even than heroin or cocaine.

 Illustration from "Reine Luft", 1941), the main journal of the German anti-tobacco movement
 
 
  In most countries the younger generations actually smoke more than the older generations. We live in an age of large warning labels on cigarette packets. Surely no-one who was born in the 1980's smokes out of ignorance of the risks?

It's not entirely about ignorance because knowledge is something very complex. But ask people directly: "Will you die of cancer? Will you get emphysema? What is the smell of a gangrenous foot? What is it like to cough to death in the night?" Most 13 or 14 year olds who start smoking don't understand those things. They start as children, get addicted early, and then no longer can be said to have a free choice.

So this idea of an adult choice is wrong on so many levels. How many people know that smoking is not only a leading cause of erectile dysfunction but also of blindness and deafness? How many people know that there is a great amount of radioactivity in cigarette smoke? Or that we get more exposure to lead and arsenic through cigarette smoke than from any other source?

So the meagre warnings on the cigarette packets can't begin to tell the fullness of the damage that has been done.

 
 
Agnotology
  Robert N Proctor's book "Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance" will be published in Juni 2008 by Stanford University Press.

He also published a prize-winning critical book on the warped but surprising history of the National Socialist crusade for health for the 'master race', called The Nazi War on Cancer.
 
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