Less light than heat – a note from David Horton


I confess, and it is like confessing to a murder, that I was once a smoker (I stopped 18 years, 3 months, 5 days, 6 hours ago, but who’s counting). There was a lot of it about in the fifties and sixties. My uncle and grandfather both smoked, pretty much all the men I knew did. Film heroes on screen smoked, and so did their audience. Doctors smoked, patients in hospital smoked, James Bond smoked, sportsmen smoked. Many of my peers smoked, in fact the coolest guy in school, Robert Patterson, used to smoke behind the sports pavilion while the rest of us played cricket – how cool was that? So I began smoking. Who knew there was a problem eh? There were giant billboards with cowboys smoking, ads on buses, television ads of really cool guys and gals in tuxedos smoking, radio ads, full page newspaper ads. And there were doctors and scientists who swore on a stack of chesterfields that smoking wasn’t harmful (lies, damned lies and statistics, where was the proof?), and tobacco company executives who swore nicotine wasn’t addictive, good heavens no, what an idea. Little did anyone know that the executives were lying, knew they were lying, but that not only were they being paid big dollars by cigarette companies but so were the scientists and doctors in their white coats.

All of us smokers agreed with each other in pubs and restaurants, in trains, in cars, in planes, smoking was doing us no harm, oh my goodness gracious no. Coughing in the morning was from dust in the bedroom, sneezing was hay fever, perfectly natural in Summer, breathlessness was just old age, lack of appetite was weight watching, inability to smell and taste – never been good at that. It was in fact, good for us, calmed the nerves, slowed us down, cleared the lungs, made a natural end to a meal, was essential to accompany coffee. And we knew, or knew of, smokers who lived a long time. Not many, but one was enough to prove that there was nothing to worry about, smoking didn’t damage health. Anyway, we could give up, or at least cut down, any time we chose. Not addicted at all, just enjoyed it, why, at times I could avoid opening that third pack of cigarettes in a day. Willpower was all that was needed, and if I ever thought I needed to, could cut down slowly, steadily. So no need for alarm – doctors, mothers, friends, children – panic merchants, alarmists, totally over the top.

But as I got older the symptoms got worse, the cough constant, the blocked nose also, and playing sport became a memory. And then there was that odd sensation in the lips, and mouth. What was that? Finally, a bit chopped out, and “pre-cancerous” the last stage before developing something that would kill me, quickly, nastily. And I stopped, not quite cold turkey, but with help from the chewing gum and patches that eased me towards being a former smoker. Not easy, but what was the choice?

And it all came back to me – the self-deception, the denial, the anger at well meaning friends, the acceptance of fake experts and the rejection of real ones, the refusal to change anything in my life even at the certain risk of losing it – these last few weeks listening to the so-called skeptics among the Liberal and National parties (the Labor skeptics have their heads down). It could have been me talking about cigarettes 20 years ago. But where I was just being stupid on my own behalf (and, well, I suppose, family and friends), these parliamentary representatives of the people of Australia are being stupid on behalf of 21 million Australians. Particularly stupid on behalf of rural Australians, in the front line as the continent fries and dries and burns. That awful image last week of a fire burning through, and destroying, a mature wheat crop, should be played over and over to all members of parliament, as a symbol of what we are in for.

And I wonder how those SA Senators, in particular, trotting out the most arrant rubbish (some coming from the same “experts” who, funded by tobacco companies, denied the harm in cigarettes – coincidence or what!) while refusing to listen to a delegation of actual climate scientists felt as the state they represent broke more and more temperature records and catastrophic fire warnings were issued?

Guilty, I hope. But I wouldn’t count on it.

There is a place in hell for climate change denialists, particularly those who should know better – it’s called Australia.


David Horton is a writer and polymath. He has qualifications in both science and the arts with careers in biology, archaeology, publishing some 100 scientific papers and a number of books on biology and archaeology.

Now retired to become a professional writer and farmer, he often screams at tv news bulletins, writes a blog, writes a newspaper column, and edits his local paper.

His books include The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia (1994 – winner NSW Premier’s Literary Award) and The Pure State of Nature (2000).

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