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The Points Interview: Christopher Snowdon

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

After a bit of a break, the “Points Interview” feature returns this week.  Christopher Snowdon becomes the eighteenth author to face the relentless grilling for which this feature has become so well known.  Christopher joins us to discuss his book, The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800 (2011) [an arresting cover design, by the way!].  He’s also the author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist (2009), which examines the history of anti-smoking activity from the 15th century to the present day.  He’s a blogger as well, and those of you interested in seeing more should check out his Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand. The Art of Suppression seeks to draw a character profile of The Prohibitionist. It offers five

Cover of The Art of Suppression book

There is something fascinating and mildly comic about people who dedicate their short time on Earth to stopping other people doing things. This is not an impulse I can relate to—although maybe I’m in the minority in that respect—and I’m intrigued by what compels them. There are a few cranks and oddballs in the book, as you might expect, but more often they’re well-meaning monomaniacs who have a very rigid sense of morality and a heightened sense of idealism.

What the book does is bring these different types of prohibition together to find common themes. It’s not really a book about the substances themselves, nor even the people who take them, but about the moral entrepreneurs who believe they can eradicate them. There are differences between them, of course, but I would say there are more similarities than differences, and whether the subject is opium-smoking in 19th century China or alcohol prohibition in Finland, there are lessons that can be applied to our circumstances today.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book? This book’s aimed at the much coveted general reader, but I hope I’ve dug out enough archive material to make it worthwhile for those who are already familiar with the issues. For scholars of alcohol and drugs history, perhaps the most interesting chapter will be the one about the prohibition of snus. Snus is a Swedish smokeless tobacco product that was banned by the European Union on the precautionary principle in the 1990s. It’s had some interesting, unexpected and unintended consequences. Neither the product nor the prohibition are well known outside of Scandinavia and I believe I’m the first person to write about the issue in any depth.

The chapter on designer drugs also contains material that hasn’t appeared in a book before, largely because some of the substances were totally unknown just a few years ago. In the battle between chemistry and the government, chemistry keeps on winning, so the history of designer drugs really needs to be updated once a year. At the moment, mine is the most up to date account!

And even if the reader already knows all about these relatively obscure topics, I hope my perspective will provoke a few thoughts. Or a few laughs, at least.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The close link between prohibitionism and the Protestant work ethic is always interesting and although I’ve seen many theories, none of them fully explain it to my satisfaction. The role played by the Chinese (both at home and abroad) in the early war on drugs is often accidental, but it’s curious how often they recur in the story in different contexts.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect for me is the medicalization of substances which began in Britain with the 1868 Pharmacy Act (in America, the 1908 Pure Food and Drug Act is perhaps the nearest equivalent). The story of drugs prohibition is really the story of mood-altering substances being taken out of the hands of the people and given to medics and chemists. Consequently, all non-medical use is abuse and those who take drugs recreationally are diseased, addicted or otherwise mentally ill. All you have to do is go to your doctor or psychiatrist and confess to falling short as a human being and you’ll be given your licit passport from reality. Even nicotine has been medicalised and turned into a pleasureless ‘therapeutic’ drug by the pharmaceutical industry. If an alcohol pill had been developed in 1919, maybe Prohibition would have succeeded, but I don’t think that would have represented progress.

Substance prohibition has shifted from being a moral issue to a health issue and I don’t see it as being either. Even many would-be liberalisers today view drugs as solely health issue. I agree with public health people on some things, but I fundamentally disagree that the solution to drugs prohibition is to drag alcohol and tobacco down into some ‘level playing field’, which would really be a medicalised grey market. I’m a legalizer, not a decriminalizer. Of course there is a health dimension, but policy shouldn’t be based entirely on health considerations any more than they should be based on moral or religious considerations. There is considerable overlap between the two in any case. The prohibitionists of 100 years ago had plenty of what would today be described as evidence-based policies. Likewise, there is a touch of Mary Hunt’s Scientific Temperance Instruction in the rhetoric of neo-temperance groups today.

The Anti-Saloon League and the United Kingdom Alliance are still around, albeit under different names—that, I find interesting. I guess it’s the recurring nature of the phenomenon that hooks me above all. Here is an ideology—I would call prohibitionism an ideology—that has failed spectacularly time and time again all over the world. Not only does it always fail but it fails for the same reasons, none of which are very difficult to comprehend. And yet, it remains endlessly alluring to successive generations.

Reformers today are smart enough to erode liberties in a more incremental, piecemeal fashion—there is still a stigma about the P word—and so what we have instead is a creeping criminalisation. What is really more likely in these supposedly permissive and liberal times? The legalisation of Ecstasy or the criminalisation of cigarettes? A cut in beer tax or the introduction of a soda tax? We have a curious ability to identify zealots and puritans in history books while failing to spot them in our own backyard. The methods and rhetoric of the Anti-Saloon League are strikingly similar to those used by single issue campaigners today—inflated claims of how much an activity ‘costs society’, blaming industry for luring in customers, twisting science, appealing to emotion, ad hominem arguments. Nothing changes.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone from The Art of Suppression are you most curious to see turned over soon? I would love someone to write a whole book about the World League Against Alcoholism, which is the subject of my second chapter. I’m strangely drawn to lost causes, and the belief that the whole planet would go dry within a few decades was heroically unrealistic. Born out of the Anti-Saloon League’s hubris following the 18th Amendment’s ratification, it was effectively dead in the water by 1923 after Sweden narrowly rejected prohibition. What is remarkable is how close places like New Zealand came to banning alcohol.

I also suspect that there is a great biography of the World League’s tireless ambassador ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson waiting to be written. He was an eternal optimist and I share the New York Times’ view that he was “the kind of prohibitionist that the most devoted opponents of prohibition have a fondness for.” (It’s always easier to find prohibitionists endearing when they don’t succeed). He earned a brief biography while still in the prime of his life which was splendidly titled “Pussyfoot” Johnson: Crusader – Reformer – A Man Amongst Men. As the title suggests, it was not exactly a warts-and-all book and if there is enough source material – and I believe there is – a fuller biography would be a wonderful contribution.

BONUS QUESTION: In a Ken Burns film version of this book, who should provide the narration? Robert de Niro would have the right balance of authority and mischief for the job, I think.

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