It was an antismoking doctor who first persuaded me to start smoking. Up until then I’d not been in the least bit interested in starting.
What happened was that, at age 17, I went to stay for a few months with an English family, while my parents remained in Brazil. And not long after I had arrived, I witnessed a rather shocking event: the father of the house had caught his rather wayward eldest son smoking, and began shouting at him at the top of his voice. And he carried on shouting at him for some time. So much so that I retreated to my room in considerable dismay. And on the way to my room I passed the father, still shouting, alone in the hall of his house, his son having fled. And he was shouting that it was a “FILTHY, FILTHY, FILTHY” habit.
Nothing was said about the event afterwards. Everyone carried on as if nothing had happened. But I was very shocked at the father’s outburst. My own father, who had smoked all his life, never raised his voice. Or at least he never shouted.
I thought about it a lot at the time. I knew that the father was a doctor, and was active in both the BMA and the WHO. I had read lots of authoritative articles in newspapers and magazines like Reader’s Digest about how smoking caused lung cancer. But this was the first time I’d ever encountered an antismoking doctor in person. In fact it was the first time I’d ever encountered any antismoker at all, because back then, in 1965, lots of people smoked, and nobody ever objected.
And thinking about the father, I wondered why, if the science was so good, he hadn’t simply taken his son aside, and explained to him quietly and patiently what the research had shown, perhaps showing him a paper or two by Richard Doll and Bradford Hill that had been published several years before. His son was no fool, and would have been able to understand. So why had he instead exploded in rage, and launched into a long tirade? A tirade so long that he was eventually standing on his own, shouting in an empty room?
All that I could remember of what was shouted, perhaps because he was shouting them as I passed him, were the words “Filthy. Filthy. Filthy.” And I gradually realised that this doctor’s objections to smoking had absolutely nothing to do with any health risks associated with smoking. His objection was a moral objection, or an aesthetic objection: it was a filthy habit. Maybe he regarded it as filthy because the smoke of cigarettes filled the air with smoke, or turned fingers brown, or adhered to walls. I never found out. I never asked him. And I always remained very frightened of him after this episode, even though I never heard him raise his voice again, and he never got angry with me.
He was a strange man in other ways. He was incapable of smiling. I never once ever saw a genuine smile on his face. Although he knew when he was supposed to smile or laugh, and would hitch up the corners of his mouth to simulate a smile or laugh. And he never seemed to enjoy anything at all. When he got home from his job as a district health officer, he’d head straight out to the garden in all weathers to work on his cabbages and chickens, only re-entering the house when darkness had fallen. I never once saw him watch television, although his family did. Nor did I ever see him read a newspaper or a book. Or enjoy a sherry or a glass of wine. He was a very strange man, and I thought that somewhere in his past there must have been some terrible traumatic event that had left him emotionally crippled.
Yet he was a good man. He raised seven children, and they were all perfectly lovely. And he fed and clothed them and educated them all. And he never spoke one single word of rebuke to me.
And about a year after this shocking event, when I had become a university undergraduate student, I came to the conclusion that antismokers like him weren’t really rational people. They were instead people who nursed a profound and irrational hatred of smoking, for reasons (if ‘reason’ had anything to do with it at all) which had nothing whatsoever to do with health. And their research was very likely driven by their irrational hatred, and they drew from it the foregone conclusion that smoking was bad for you, because they already thought that smoking was bad.
And with that I stopped worrying about whether smoking might cause lung cancer or anything else. I had seen what the antismoking doctors were really like. And I had seen through them.
And so, one day, shortly after that, I went out and bought myself my very first packet of cigarettes. It took me about two weeks to smoke them, one by one. But I was determined to start smoking. Because I didn’t want to think of my own father as being a “filthy” smoker. Starting smoking was an act of solidarity with my father, and my grandfather, and my late Spitfire pilot uncle. I very deliberately took their side.
And that’s how I started smoking.
The antismoking doctor (who died at the same age as my father) was his own worst enemy. His outburst had the complete opposite effect to that intended. But for that volcanic outburst, I would quite likely have never started smoking. But instead, it drove me to start smoking, and to regard all antismoking doctors with the deepest suspicion. The impetus he provided still acts on me today: it’s why I write my blog, in which I bang on about the smoking ban. If the doctor had indeed suffered some traumatic event in his youth, he provided me with my own shocking, traumatic event (although not one sufficiently traumatic as to prevent me from laughing or enjoying anything). It’s one which I have never forgotten.
About the author Frank Davis