Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

MOUTHS should be privatised. Freedom of speech is constitutional protection for what comes out of your mouth; incremental control over what you put into it amounts to your mouth being nationalised. You are, under South African law, free to put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger, eat arsenic, or swallow razor blades, but not smoke dagga. You are still allowed some psychoactive substances (sugar, coffee, chocolate, glue), but not others (ecstasy, dagga, tik).

Antipleasure puritans like our minister of health and his propaganda agency, the National Council Against Smoking, want tobacco added to the list of prohibitions. Official policy is headed towards tobacco prohibition followed by draconian measures against liquor, salt, sugar, complementary health, traditional healing, fast food, baby food and whatever else upsets killjoys. If you condone nicotine fascism, you have no principled argument against control of every aspect of life.

The trend predicts prohibition of obesity and condomless sex, compulsory attendance at health clinics, mandatory exercise and the forced use of safe public transport.

The post-1970s anti-smoker phenomenon has had four phases. At first, the tobacco industry’s view was that it takes two to tango, so it ignored the assault on consumer rights, hoping it would dissipate. When that failed, it declared war on health claims, but it was too late — that war had been lost. Next, producers abandoned the debate, which left antismoker fanatics free to propagate exaggerations and lies. Suppliers confined themselves to resisting "excessive" controls. Antismokers banned smoking wherever they wished on the pretext of protecting nonsmokers like me. Nonsmokers who chose the company of smokers were declared "passive" smokers, and calling restaurants and offices "public places" reached the point where no one queried cryptonationalisation.

The tobacco industry in effect abandoned the people who pay it: smokers and property owners. It has done little or nothing to protect the rights and dignity of smokers who are routinely insulted, oppressed and demeaned, or property owners whose private property became "public" property. The industry does little or nothing to create or support a property- or smokers-rights movement, and does not defend smoking as a legitimate consumer choice with net benefits for people making informed choices.

The current fourth phase entails the final erosion of tobacco-related civil liberties. The drumbeat of draconian measures to protect "passive" smokers slithered surreptitiously into propaganda that legitimises a frontal attack on lifestyle liberty. If nothing is done to ward off tobacco prohibition, we will endure the ghastly equivalent of pre-1960s liquor prohibition for black South Africans.

Alternatively, the tobacco industry can launch a positive fifth phase in which it actively, openly and generously supports its battered customers, and helps them enjoy their constitutional right to freedom and dignity. It can support initiatives to roll back regulation to the protection of nonsmokers and children. It can support a campaign against being forced to have their product packed in obnoxious packs, and the right to smoke in ventilated private places with owner consent. Suppliers and their customers should regain the moral high ground and promote smoking as a perfectly legitimate consumer option.

The call by nicotine nazis for control of safe electronic cigarettes is proof, for those who need it, that what they really hate is satisfaction.

Instead of supplication, smokers will, if there is a fifth phase, smoke proudly, and celebrate the positive trade-off between understated personal benefits and exaggerated risks. They will have contempt for the argument that public health costs excuse public health oppression. And they will resist the nationalisation of their bodies.

• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation