It is often customary for the anti-tobacco and anti-beer campaigner to hit the streets coinciding with a prominent “religious banner”. In the wake of Vesak, Poson and other such Buddhist festivities have time and again provided the said campaigner a stage and a legitimacy of a sort to her cause. One recent example is the recently concluded Kandy Esala Perahara – a pageant of international proportions – along which a series of banners and posters condemning smokers and beer brewers freely appeared on the sides of Kandy’s town and immediate outskirts.
One has the right to engage in tobacco abolition activity, no doubt. Based on one’s conscience and politics of social welfare if one feels that a smoke or a bottle of beer will disintegrate the social mass, then, the individual should have the right to campaign against such a debacle. But, then, there also has to be an equal grounds for the consumer of alcohol or tobacco – for one whom a booze out or a smoke is both productive and pleasurable. The logic of smoking and its pleasure principle cannot be gauged by the mathematics of health science. The abolitionist, of course, has always pushed this rationalization for her purpose, and predictably, too – but, this should not be the case, as the smoker’s aesthetics define itself.
Over the past two decades, “anti-tobacco awareness” and “anti-booze programmes” have gained rigorous momentum across the island. The “health concerns” of the modern day and the increased faith on “health diet” ethics and the like have brought out strong resistance against fags and other joints. In addition, the institutionalized shadow of the Buddhist religious discourse – a religion based on a teaching that is interpreted to have reservations on the use of alcohol –, too, has given an advantageous drive for the anti-distiller. This is seen in the way how a programme such as the Pearahara can be used as a forum to legitimize their agendas and objects.
There are two points worth our attention – the first, of course, is to do with the defensive measures by which the anti-tobacco campaigns are often conducted. The campaigns, unimaginative as the slogans appear, are nothing short of the ruthless. Posters that attack the libido and the masculinity of the smoker come across as historically outdated in their conceptual validity; and sexist, too, if you extend the argument. The apparently scientific conclusion that smoking makes one impotent fails to address the logic of the tobacco consumer. These posters try to counter the “smoker as hero” image – an image that is dated – which, in any case, is a myth of capitalism.
The anti-tobacco agitator who hides behind a religious festival to insult the smoker and the beer seller shows much insecurity in his purpose. The camouflage of institutionalized religion and state sponsorship makes the campaigner an indirect hypocrite, as the distilleries continue to thrive as one of the state’s main sources of revenue. A news report last week claims that over the past eight months or so, there is a 30% increase in the local produce of liquor. This production is sanctioned by the state who, while feeding on the liquor tax on one hand, in/directly pledges support for the abolition of these “social evils”.
Not that there is a necessary cut down in the number of smokers: that they genuinely begin to worry about their potency or sexual virility. There, indeed, are recessions caused by a host of other reasons – the lack of affordability being a main compelling de-motivator. Over the past few years there are many smokers who have resorted to cheaper brands, being victims of taxation and resultant price inflations. Many a common Gold Leaf consumer had to fall back on Bristol; and some had to refresh their smoking habits to a humble beedi. All this while the abolitionist campaigned for a “smoke free” Sri Lanka and the government increased taxation as a means of assisting this end. There is, in any case, a perfect symbiosis there – while the adult smoker is more and more “authenticated” as an abhor and as a social retard.
Our adult consciousness has to come to a more humane social contract – that smoking is a choice and a fair choice at that. There should be an accommodation of a beer drinker’s libido as much as any other’s. Given the fact that our alcohol consumption is a vital agenda in any discourse – from wedding to a house-warming – it is intriguing to see how people consort to a twin mask: how they, generally, are persuaded to feel guilty to accept the fact they booze; but, how they consume liquor all the same. Thus, a simple pleasure which everyone knows the other indulges in is suppressed and hushed into an “after dark” practice.
This superimposed fear of liquor is one example of how religious fanaticism is improvised on to promote group / state interests. The same can be seen in discussions of flesh consumption, sexual relations, recreation etc – where, individual choices of non-VIP adults are tampered with and their simple pleasures curtailed. The anti-beer banner, therefore, is an expression of insecurity. The ridicule and lampoon aimed at the beer drinker or smoker is an unimaginative taunt against personal choice. “I do not kiss a smoker” accompanied by a female cartoon is the anti-tobacco fantasy; for, a kisser’s choice is adult and is determined by other non-cigarette configurations as well.
The need for fair accommodative grounds which make space for smokers and beer drinkers alike will only enrich our democracy. Since democracies have often been known to be less altruistic the smoker and alcohol consumer – an oppressed class – will have to struggle for that equal footing against strategic stigmatization. Specially, in a nation like ours where critical faculties have, over the years, been shrunk and society has been made less and less open, the struggle will be harder; even as you fill the state coffers and even as you render to the commissions received by bigwigs in office.