Dancing on Christopher Hitchens’ grave? The tricky business of talking about consequences

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Vanity Fair, February 2004

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A “pro-smoking blogger for the libertarian right”  accuses me of “dancing on Christopher Hitchens’ grave”.

And other stuff.

Christopher Snowdon is a Research Fellow for the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that receives tobacco funding.  He is an opponent of plain tobacco packaging, keeper of the pure flame of libertarianism etc.

My sin – contained in a paper forming part of a symposium on public health regulation and the “nanny state”, was to reflect on a self-confessed “crime spree” Hitchens took in New York City  in late 2003.

During the course of an autumn day, Hitchens broke as many of the city’s “petty ordinances” as he could, particularly its smoke-free laws.

At the time, Michael Bloomberg was in the second year of his first, 4-year term as NYC Mayor.  He went on to serve 3 full terms, introducing tobacco control laws that saw the adult smoking rate fall by 28% between 2002 and 2012, and the youth smoking rate fall by 52% between 2001-2011 .

Which is a terrible result, if you’re a tobacco company, but a magnificent result for New Yorkers – with changed life trajectories and longer, healthier lives for hundreds of thousands of people.

You can read about Michael Bloomberg’s public health legacy here.

Apparently embittered at the constraints on his smoking, Hitch lashed out, reflecting on the “shriveled core of the tiny Bloombergian mind”, and ending with:

“Who knows what goes on in the tiny, constipated chambers of his mind? All we know for certain is that one of the world’s most broad-minded and open cities is now in the hands of a picknose control freak.”

The editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, who at the time was being serially fined by the NYC Health Department for flouting its smoke-free laws and smoking in his office, published the whole account.

Then, in June 2010, at the height of his powers, Hitchens announced he had cancer  of the oesophagus.  As one journalist wrote, “The celebrated drinker and smoker who once claimed that “booze and fags are happiness” had succumbed to a cancer most often associated with drinking and smoking.”

Hitchens died less than 18 months later.

Like his hero Hitchens, Snowdon believes that smoke-free laws are anti-libertarian.  The mind boggles at this point, given that globally, one in ten people who die from tobacco are non-smokers who are unintentionally harmed (poisoned) by smokers….

However, to my mind the more interesting theme that excites Snowdon is the question of whether Hitchens’ diagnosis challenged his libertarian convictions.  Snowdon assumes that the rationale for discussing this issue was to concoct some sort of contrived, deathbed confession:

“Magnusson clearly thinks that Hitchens got his comeuppance when he died of cancer and wants to believe that he renounced his principles on his death bed.”

The record shows that Christopher Hitchens castigated those who promoted effective tobacco control, yet spoke frankly and publicly about his own cancer, acknowledging that it was probably caused by his smoking and drinking.

Hitchens made his choices, and talked about them freely.  He made his private life a public matter.

So we have permission, I think, to talk about Hitchens – who I suspect would have approved of being the topic of conversation.

“I’ve come by this particular tumor honestly”, he told Anderson Cooper on CNN in August 2010.  “If you smoke, which I did for many years very heavily with occasional interruption, and if you use alcohol, you make yourself a candidate for it in your sixties.” “I might as well say to anyone who might be watching – if you can hold it down on the smokes and the cocktails you may be well advised to do so”.

Cooper responded “That’s probably the subtlest anti-smoking message I’ve ever heard”.

“The other ones tend to be more strident”, Hitchens replied, “and for that reason, easy to ignore”.

“Even if this weren’t incredibly tasteless” Snowdon writes, “Magnusson could hardly have found a less fitting person to use as an example.”

Snowdon seems to think that the point of discussing Hitchens is to trip him up on his words, seek to make an object lesson out of him, or worse, to gloat.

But there are other reasons why Hitchens’ account of his illness is worth reflecting on.

Certainly, it was a compelling story. Statistics are easy to brush off: just ask a smoker.  But stories are a little harder.

Here comes this libertarian prophet – as sure as any libertarian ever was about the infantilising effect of public health laws – suddenly forced to come face to face with his own premature (and probably preventable) death.  Did he have conflicting feelings, second thoughts?  It’s not an unfair question.

“In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be”, Hitchens wrote  in 2010, “I have very abruptly become a finalist….In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends … .[F]or precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair … . Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married?  To watch the World Trade Center rise again?

Through his story, we catch a glimpse of the public interest that public health laws and policies are intended to protect.

The public interest in tobacco and alcohol control laws does not exist for the sake of some abstracted, disembodied “public”, but ultimately for the sake of all those individuals who might otherwise die prematurely, or just as frequently, as Simon Chapman writes, live long in distress and isolation due to the disintegrating impacts of their illness.

Bloomberg’s tobacco control laws were intended to help prevent the kind of death Hitchens died.  To say that is not to gloat.

Consequences tend to be trivialised or absent when libertarians set out their plans for how the world ought to be.

The narrative we tend to get is the one written by the be-suited Hitchens in 2003, flying through Central Park with his feet off the bicycle pedals, witty, cancer-free, not the man 7 years later, who writes  “The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair. I feel upsettingly de-natured. If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice”.

How should public health advocates talk about consequences?

In the United States, gun enthusiasts have become so highly proficient at ignoring consequences that anyone who dares link the most recent gun-related massacre [insert dates & details] with that shocking, leftist, evil thing called “gun control” – is howled down for seeking to “politicise a personal tragedy“.

Plenty of compelling stories, it seems, but never a teachable moment.

But for the rest of us, prevention matters because people matter.  Their needless suffering or death is relevant to how we evaluate the wisdom of government actions, laws and policies.

The nanny state conspiracy theorists overstate their case.  Hitchens’ freedom to make choices about smoking, drinking, diet and lifestyle were his for the taking.  No one stood in his way.

Hitchens had no Damascus conversion over tobacco, or anything else for that matter, but his public expressions of regret were no less powerful for their subtlety.

[Interview between Anderson Cooper (CNN) and Christopher Hitchens, 6 August 2010: http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=385×492527 (transcript);  http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/08/07/video-extended-interview-hitchens-on-cancer-and-atheism/ (video).]

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