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Kill-joys and pleasure seekers

Thursday October 20, 2011

Tom Miers reviews The Art of Suppression by Christopher Snowdon

The story of prohibition is one of human nature at its worst – mistaken idealism, pride, intolerance and unintended consequences. Above all it is about how ideas mutate from benign and often thoughtful attempts to do good to dogmas defended with almost religious fanaticism.

The Art of Suppression – pleasure, panic and prohibition since 1800, by Christopher Snowdon, tells the tale of the major substance bans in the modern era. Most famous of course is the American ban on alcohol between 1920 and 1933. Snowden’s account is brief, lively and informative. It traces the beginnings of the temperance movement in the 19th Century, motivated to begin with by genuine horror at the damage done by drunkenness. As the movement gathers force with the genesis of the Anti-Saloon League, so it becomes politicised and moralised, with all the entrenched bitterness that implies.

At one stage the US government was persuaded to poison industrial alcohol (the main raw material for bootleg drink), killing 10,000 people. All the consequences of prohibition became manifest – rising crime, deaths from poor quality moonshine, increased costs on government, the demonisation of producers and consumers, and an erosion of liberty.

The same pattern is repeated with subsequent attempts at prohibition, mostly of recreational drugs. But the most extraordinary story is that of Snus, the Swedish ‘oral snuff’. This harmless product is the victim of a nightmare combination of bureaucratic mix-up and prohibitionist fanaticism.

An attempt by an American company to introduce a similar product in Britain in the 1980’s attracted the full weight of anti-tobacco lobbying, resulting in a UK ban. Brussels then imposed an EU-wide ban on single market grounds, which presented something of a dilemma when Sweden applied to join the EU some years later. With the referendum about to be lost (a quarter of Swedish men use snus), a special exemption was awarded to the product in Sweden alone.

This resulted in legal action by the producers, with the inevitable round of intense campaigning by lobbyists so wedded to their anti-tobacco religion that they could not accept the truth: that if a relatively harmless product like snus persuades smokers to switch to it, then lives can be saved. Both smoking and cancer rates in Sweden are well below the EU average.

The ban has been upheld, leading on one estimate to 200,000 lives lost, based on the potential of snus as an alternative to cigarettes.

This begs the question of what motivates the prohibitionists, and indeed what it is in human nature that makes their goals unachievable. It is on this subject that Christopher Snowden’s insights are most valuable.

Campaigners build themselves into a self-righteous position from which they cannot climb down, fuelled by selectively interpreted science. ‘Moral entrepreneurs’, lacking in empathy for their fellow man, forge a career for themselves, glorying in their political and financial successes. For success breeds success and their relentless proselytising finds willing adherents. Government is attracted by the sense of decisiveness attached to prohibition. And the general public is guilty as well, our neighbourly intolerance lending widespread popular support to bans.

Prohibitionists find willing allies in the commercial rivals of those producing the product in question. Brewers supported the early US temperance movement, hoping to damage distillers. Modern pharmaceutical companies fear that the rise of tobacco substitutes like snus will undermine the market for nicotine patches.

Yet for all this, prohibition is doomed to founder on the rock of human desire. It is in our bones to seek out physical pleasure, sometimes at considerable cost. “When the law cuts off one avenue of pleasure, new sources are invariably found,” as Snowdon puts it. If there is any great demand for a certain product, be it food, drink, drugs or sex, then the risks of purveying it are met by colossal rewards.

The Art of Suppression is full of great facts – its description of opium-addicted Britain before the wars is particularly memorable. But its real impact is its pithy denunciation of the prohibitionist cause. It ends with a modest proposal for a more practical and tolerant approach to drugs of all kinds. In his modesty Snowdon does not hold much hope for implementation. But this book must make that goal more likely.

Tom Miers is Editor of the Free Society. The Art of Suppression is published by little dice, and is available to order from the author’s website.

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