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Breaking bad (habits)

One of those reports you read on public blogs with off-the-wall references to better-known and more trustworthy names in the world of journalism (I include The Boglington Post among them) claims that Boko Haram, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist extremist group proposing to create a caliphate in northern Nigeria, has executed two village policemen for smoking on duty.

It does seem somewhat perverse to outlaw a particular habit as a health hazard, only to prescribe an even greater health hazard as the punishment for failing to break the habit. There are gentler ways of encouraging people to stop smoking, but I suppose a dramatic demonstration of what can happen if you don’t is as good as a health warning on the pack, or banning advertising.

But why? Well, according to the article, certain dimly educated village mullahs have ruled that smoking is un-Islamic, because the Qu’ran frowns both on self-harming, and on wasting money.

Now, forgive me, but where does this fatwa leave a) suicide bombers, and b) the hopped-up young jihadis who like to shoot thousands of bullets playfully in the air at a dollar a time, to impress foreign journalists? Or does simultaneously shouting Allahu akbar! in lieu of more coherent rationalisations absolve them of guilt?

It’s a somewhat quixotic gesture to enforce a fatwa on smokers in the Developing World (now there’s an oxymoron), where approximately 96 per cent of men are hooked on the habit by the age of seven – women probably find it harder to smoke with their faces covered. So my guess is that Boko Haram see tobacco as a capitalist Crusader conspiracy, rather as in the nineteenth century we Brits forced the Chinese at gunpoint to take opium to protect the tea trade.

They might not be far wrong.

One of my wives had a cousin who married an Italian who (over 30 years ago) supplemented a precarious living as a fisherman by running American cigarettes to Albania, returning with human contraband – political refugees.

Now and then, his fast powerboats would be shot-up by police operating from helicopters, and need replacing with faster ones. My Italian and his English met less than halfway, but from what he was saying, I gathered that, in his opinion (not the author’s, I’m having nothing to do with it) the boats were ultimately paid for by a grant from the US tobacco company, the money being channeled via some deeply reputable business associates in Palermo.

It was an extreme, but no-doubt effective, form of product promotion.

As I should know, because, while working in an advertising agency, I was once briefed to find a way of getting more smokers in Scotland hooked on a certain brand of cigarette made, as far as I could tell, from whatever was left on the factory floor after the previous shift had gone home. Research suggested that if you could get someone to smoke a brand for seven weeks, that was it, loyal for life. I’m ashamed to admit, my campaign was hugely successful*.

So now, twenty-five years on, the world is a very different place. And getting more different by the day. How many socially aggravating habits might the Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, in his eagerness to overcome Islamist militancy, not eradicate by the simple expedient of putting a bullet through the back of a few miscreants’ fuzzy heads? Is wine banned in Islam? In that case, I’m a dead man drinking.

And what about drivers of diesel cars? People who watch (a pointless TV quiz-show called) Pointless? Householders who deliberately try to sneak out the odd empty fishpaste-jar with their recycling, knowing that glass is an officially banned substance? Apostates!

Still, it’s good to know Boko Haram are taking the health of the nation to heart. Gives us all hope.

 

*Fans of the Mel Brooks’ film, The Producers, will be familiar with the plot wherein our eponymous heroes set out to fail, and collect the insurance money, only for their terrible show ‘Springtime for Hitler’ to succeed beyond their wildest nightmares. Disliking smoking, I intentionally created an advertising campaign of such desperate banality that no-one could possibly have been taken-in by it, only to obtain an unheard-of 16 per cent positive response. I may thus have killed more Scotsmen than the Duke of Cumberland. I’m very, truly, sorry.

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