There’s been a lot of whinging and whining the past week. Ever since it was announced that new, harsher, EU legislation on smoking is to be introduced, the pro-smoking lobby has erupted with its usual accusations of nanny state mentality. It’s played the ‘freedom’ card, and insisted that moves such as bans on flavoured cigarettes won’t deter kids. Of course they are wrong. And right.
Wrong because protecting their freedom to smoke at the cost of our freedom to be free from smoke is as absurd as insisting that somebody’s right to pull a trigger trumps the right of another’s not to be shot.
Right, because flavour bans and health warnings are entirely the wrong tack. They may go a small way to discourage the habit, but they still focus all efforts on the smoker’s sense of logic. On the smoker’s reason, their rationale. Thing is – smokers are stupid.
Discounting perhaps the oldest generation of smokers who may have just slipped into the habit before education about health hazards became widespread, the rest of us have been taught from a very young age that smoking is bad for you. We know the dangers. There is a long, long list of them and they have been dutifully paraded before us, if not by our parents then certainly by our teachers. A fag is in essence a stupid-stick.
Of course once the habit is ingrained, dealing with addiction is a whole separate issue. What we are talking about is making the choice to smoke in the first place. And somehow, within some circles – youth in particular – it retains its aura of cool. Warnings about what might happen to your lungs 40 years down the road only play into the dynamic of being a bit bad, a bit reckless. It shows one’s invincibility, or a don’t-care attitude, and is part of the appeal.
What is less appealing, is being branded a murderer.
Okay, I’m stretching the drama a little, but it is time to stop focusing legislation on the smoker’s health. Instead, we should be paying attention to the health of the rest of society suffering the effects of passive smoke. Not only through second-hand smoke – the smoke directly inhaled from another’s cigarette. And not only through the extra pressure put on our health services through avoidable, smoking-induced diseases. But, most importantly, through third-hand smoke – the residue of nicotine and countless other toxins that become ingrained in skin, clothes and other surfaces. This residue can be extremely harmful, particularly for children, it lasts on the surface for many months, and it is exceptionally difficult to remove.
The upshot, is that current curbs are nothing compared to what they should be. New laws, for example, banning smoking in cars when children are present are a good step, but the residue of smoke from earlier cigarettes will remain. As will the dangers. And while smoking is already banned in the workplace, for people working in close proximity to children, it should be illegal for them to smoke anywhere, full stop. Deposits linger on their clothes, in their hair, on their skin. A nursery assistant or midwife carrying babies all day should simply not be allowed to expose their charges to risks that have been linked with consequences as serious as SIDS. This is not being a nanny state, this is protecting our citizens, and the legislation should go far further than it does.
Of course it has been argued that shaming and ostracizing smokers is not as effective as education and innovation. The E-cigarette has been pointed to as a model alternative. But while ‘vaping’ E-cigarettes is certainly less harmful than the real thing, the vapour still contains numerous pollutants that continue to be dangerous both to the smoker and to unwitting passive smokers. While this remains under-publicised, E-cigarettes are enjoying a worrying honeymoon with public opinion. It is re-normalizing smoking in public. And this, again, reminds us why shaming is the only option.
People may be happy to be seen as a fun kind of tipsy at a party, but nobody wants to be a drunk-driver. Some of us may enjoy thrill seeking with a bungee jump, but nobody would push an un-harnessed kid. Playing with our own safety is something that must remain personal choice, but the second it endangers somebody else, anybody else, this is the time for the state, and society, to step in. Smoking anywhere in public must become as unacceptable as drink driving. Smoking not just around children, but at all if we are later in contact with them, should be criminal. It is not cool to put other people in jeopardy, and must no longer be tolerated. Smokers, be ashamed.