Nicholas Lezard: The country is turning into a Gestapo khazi

The seven years of life lost on average by smoking are not the best ones

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I only saw the headline on yesterday's front page of The Times, but the information it imparted was enough, I feel, to give everyone the gist: apparently doctors now want to make it punishable by law to smoke in a car. It's apparently about protecting children.

There is a "Derek and Clive" sketch when Peter Cook, telling how he has been pulled over by the police for running someone over while being incredibly drunk, describes the country as turning into "a Gestapo khazi". It's a very funny line, precisely because his indignation is so misplaced, but now I wonder – and remember Adolf Hitler's hatred of smoking – is this, perhaps, another one of those little steps (detention without trial, untrammelled surveillance of private correspondence, more CCTVs per person of any country on earth) which really are turning this country into a toilet supervised and controlled by the police?

I remember when my father, in the days when he still smoked, would light up in the car; I recall the comforting smell of the second-hand smoke. I'm not even sure he opened the window. I didn't mind in the slightest. It didn't occur to me to mind. And neither, now I think about it, did my clothes smell of smoke afterwards. In fact, I don't think anyone's clothes smelled of smoke until people started complaining about it. The smell of smoke on clothes is only really detectable by the kind of people who go around sniffing clothes to see if they smell of smoke. I am reminded, by a circuitous thought process, of the women who praised Samuel Johnson for not including any rude words in his dictionary. His response was magisterially wise: they shouldn't have been looking for them in the first place.

Now, I do understand that it is distressing to see a car packed with children while the grown-ups are smoking in the front, and I would never smoke in the car with my own children in it. The dangers of passive smoking may well be exaggerated but I am happy to err on the side of caution with this one. I am, too, very glad my father stopped smoking – it has almost certainly extended his life. I am also glad that he was able to smoke in the first place, and to give up, without hectoring or bullying to do so, from sheer will-power. I smoke; and I, too, look forward to giving up in the same way, in a few years.

But when doctors, a significant proportion of whose salary comes from taxes raised by smokers, decide that it is better to lecture us than to cure us – it's as if what they're really clamouring for is not so much an ending to suffering as a reduction in their workload – then my libertarian hackles rise. And I am reminded of the main character Martin Amis's latest novel who points out that the seven years of life lost, on average, by smoking, are not actually the best ones.

But egging Government on to stop people smoking in their own cars – well, as an attention-grabber, it has certainly worked. As a means of making the health lobby look reasonable and fair-minded, it has backfired. I've smoked three indignant, rebellious cigarettes writing this piece, and I've never enjoyed them so much.

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