Bumming Smokes in Paris and London

George Orwell’s Obsession with Tobacco

by Josh Indar

18 June 2009


Appropriation Unbecoming

Photo (partial) found on Day Life.com

Photo (partial) found on Day Life.com

Appropriation Unbecoming

Unsurprisingly, one of the debates in which Orwell’s name is continually misappropriated is in public discussion on the role of tobacco in society.

The fact that Orwell’s name is now commonly used to describe anything supposedly oppressive or misleading is both a testament to his works and an affront to his legacy. Scarcely a day goes by when the term “Orwellian” is not applied to some facet of modern-day life, usually by people with little understanding of Orwell’s true ideals.

Unsurprisingly, one of the debates in which Orwell’s name is continually misappropriated is in public discussion on the role of tobacco in society. When smoking was banned in British pubs in 2006, dozens of newspaper columnists and hundreds of op/ed and blog writers declared that the age of Big Brother had arrived.

But the problem with invoking Orwell to decry a smoking ban in pubs is that it pits Orwell against himself, exposing the great conflict already existing between Orwell’s romantic attitudes toward the common man and his innate mistrust of authority. It is known today that heavy smoking is a disastrous burden on poor and working-class people, just as it was for Orwell. One of the main reasons given for banning smoking in public places is that it protects the health of hotel, restaurant and bar workers—the very same people Orwell found slaving for the rich in Parisian hotels.

In Orwell’s England, more than 80 percent of the male population smoked. ( Cancer Research UK.org) Today, smoking in the UK is mostly a habit of the lower classes. If Orwell had known what we know now about smoking, he might have rethought his addiction, particularly in light of the amoral behavior of the modern tobacco industry.

How would Orwell, “the wintry conscience of a generation”, have felt about cigarettes had he known that, according to the World Health Organization, smoking “contributes to poverty through loss of income, loss of productivity, disease and death?” (“Tobacco and Poverty: A Vicious Circle”, World Health Organization, Sweden, 2005) If Orwell had been aware that more than 10.5 million starving people in Bangladesh might have an adequate diet if they spent their money on food instead of tobacco, might he have kicked the habit, either in life or literature?

We will, of course, never know. The notion that allowing the government to ban smoking is a step on the road to totalitarianism might well have been something Orwell agreed with. Yet banning smoking in public is hardly the same as banning books, thought or sex, as was the case in Orwell’s Oceania, where one was barred from doing important things but still had the freedom to light up a state-rolled cigarette in the middle of a crowded hate rally.

In the real world, the freedom to smoke is in direct opposition to nonsmokers’ rights to be free from the forced inhalation of smoke in a public place. (The Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency, World Health Organization, U.S. Surgeon General and most medical associations have found that long-term exposure to others’ cigarette smoke carries many of the same health risks as actively smoking.)  Seen in this context, the smoking debate becomes one in which the right of the individual is set against the survival of the collective, a conflict that Orwell wrestled with his entire life but never quite solved.

This can be seen in Orwell’s longtime advocacy of socialism, which sometimes seems to contradict his unflattering portraits of leftists, his frightening visions of communism, and his unrequited love for the England of his youth—hardly a classless utopia. Like most idealists, Orwell was better at articulating what was wrong with the world than he was at positing solutions.

If he were alive today, Orwell might well mourn the days when one could smoke inside a pub, but he would surely be too busy writing about the more important threats to freedom we now face—wage slavery, neocolonialism, corporate and government surveillance, media consolidation, official historical revisionism, the rise of the “public relations” industry, etc.—to get too worked up smokers’ rights.

Yet that hasn’t stopped modern pundits from using Orwell’s name to assist their political arguments. This practice has led the word “Orwellian” to become one of those shopworn phrases that Orwell implored writers to stop using in his oft-cited essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Such “dying metaphors,” Orwell wrote, “are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” 

How many modern writers give much thought to what the term “Orwellian” really means? The dictionary defines it as anything invocative of the author George Orwell, but in common usage, “Orwellian” only refers to the oppressive qualities of 1984’s Oceania and not to any of his other (and often far better) works.

Such an ambivalent word is begging to be misused. Most people wouldn’t describe the experience of sharing a cigarette with an anarchist, or of picking the butts out of an ashtray, as “Orwellian”, yet the term would be far more accurate in this context than in most modern uses of the term.

It is to be expected that when a writer creates as powerful a setting as Orwell does in 1984, that the setting will be remembered, and that over time, the memory of it will take on a cultural life of its own, even eclipsing what is in the actual text. This explains how nearly every modern political movement is able to claim Orwell as an adherent, no matter how preposterous the affiliation might be.

Conservatives, neoconservatives, liberals, religious groups, unionists—basically any mob one can think of has tried at one point or another to ally themselves with Orwell. So too have the partisans of the great smoking debate. Anti-tobacco groups would send every smoking reference Orwell ever wrote down the memory hole if they could, just as smokers’ rights advocates would have us forget that cigarettes helped speed Orwell to a tragically early grave.

Josh Indar is a journalist, musician and educator who has been fascinated with George Orwell since the 6th Grade. He holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles.

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