A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Another civil right up in smoke

Smokers are under attack again. After banning us from lighting in public places, even open-aired such as bus stops and train stations, the health fascists are plotting to curb smoker's rights with new measures such as removing branding from packets and banning cigarette vending machines, as will happen in Scotland next year. Smokers' lobby group Forest criticised the proposals for eroding people's ability to make lifestyle choices. Health charity Ash said that while it supported the plans in principle, there was a need for more detail and stronger pledges. The government strategy includes a commitment to try to stop young people taking up smoking by cracking down on illegally imported cheap cigarettes. Every smoker will be able to get help from the NHS to suit them if they want to give up. And there will be a review of smoking legislation, which could see public bans extended to places such as the entrances of buildings. Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: "We've come so far and now we'll go even further, to push forward and save even more lives. This strategy renews our commitment to virtually eradicate the health harms caused by smoking, and I firmly believe we can halve smoking by 2020. In 10 years' time, only one-in-10 people will smoke."

The government said each year smoking caused 80,000 deaths and cost the NHS £2.7bn - the same as alcohol related illness and injury. We can all understand and fully accept the health risks of smoking and the nature of that risk. Indeed, the health risks have been known for so long (the US Surgeon General first announced a link between smoking and lung cancer in 1964) we believe there cannot be a sane adult in the UK who is not aware of the potential danger. We do however have a problem with the tactics adopted by politicians and the health industry who routinely use the health argument to say they are "protecting" smokers from themselves. The health argument is then presented in one of several ways. The first is to frighten smokers into believing that they will almost certainly die before their time ("Quit or die"). The problem with this message is that it is so obviously false. As a great many families (and even doctors) will testify, many smokers live a long and healthy life, sometimes outliving their non-smoking peers. Moreover, with one major exception (lung cancer), none of the illnesses described as "smoking-related" is exclusive to smokers and all are primarily diseases of the elderly. In reality, two-thirds of all deaths in the UK are caused by "smoking-related diseases", despite the fact that only half of those people actually smoke.

Common sense would suggest that something else must be responsible for these "smoking-related diseases" (and, no, it's not passive smoking!) which is unrelated to smoking. Diet, perhaps, or genetic factors, or even general lifestyle (lack of exercise, for example). Or maybe (horror of horrors) it's just old age. One disease that smoking cannot ignore is lung cancer for the simple reason that it very, very rarely afflicts non-smokers. (The average annual risk of a non-smoker getting lung cancer has been calculated to be 0.01%.) Even for smokers, however, the quit or die message seems a bit excessive. According to Professor Sir Richard Doll (the man who first discovered a correlation between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s) research suggests that if you start smoking as a teenager and quit aged 30, the risk of developing lung cancer is 2%; give up at 50 and the risk goes up to 8%; give up at 70 (by which time you have been smoking for more than 50 years) and the risk rises to 16%.  Surprised? Let's face it, these figures paint a rather different picture from the anti-smoking lobby which gives the impression that most if not all smokers are going to die a horrible, agonising death well before their time. Again, this isn't to deny the health risks, but let's get this in perspective. In spite of what some people would have you believe, smoking is not a one-way ticket to Death Row.

Revealingly, the anti-smoking lobby refuses point blank to acknowledge that smoking has any beneficial qualities whatsoever. The health risks of smoking may outweight the health risks of stress, for example, but there are many smokers who believe passionately that the former helps reduce the latter. Likewise, many smokers believe (rightly or wrongly) that smoking (and the occasional smoking break) helps improve their concentration and makes them more efficient at work. Meanwhile, instead of welcoming research which suggests that smoking may help ward off Alzheimer's Disease (one of most debilitating illnesses known to man), the anti-smokers pour scorn on the idea. Why? Finally, there is a clear lack of perspective in the smoking debate, a factor most clearly illustrated by the anti-smokers' complaint that James Bond, in the 2002 film Die Another Day, was filmed smoking a cigar. The fact that they had no problem with 007 having casual, unprotected sex, driving dangerously fast or being in possession of a loaded gun (with intent to kill!) reveals more about their narrow-minded obsession than it does about the dangers of smoking.


Smoking may have been banned in the workplace, but smoking is still an issue for many employers and their employees. Unfortunately the emotive nature of the debate often sees common sense relegated to the bottom of the list when employers are considering what type of smoking policy to introduce. While it is against the law to discriminate against people on the basis, for example, of race and religion, it is perfectly legal for employers to refuse to hire smokers and, under certain circumstances, fire them. In December 2005 the World Health Organisation said it would no longer recruit people who smoke or otherwise use tobacco. The ban applies to any applicants who smoke and say they would continue to smoke, either daily or occasionally. In January 2005 four employees at a healthcare company based in Michigan, USA, were fired after they refused the firm’s ultimatum to quit smoking. The company began random drug tests for nicotine at the beginning of that year saying it would fire workers who failed the test or refused to quit smoking. Other US firms are refusing to hire applicants who admit they smoke while many American companies require workers to take breathalyser tests that detect traces of carbon monoxide in the lungs or else submit to urine tests to detect nicotine.
 
In Florida a sheriff’s office demanded that all job applicants who have a recent history of smoking pass a polygraph test proving they no longer smoke outside work; this was later rescinded when the sheriff’s office was unable to recruit enough properly qualified police officers. US legal experts say there’s not much smokers can do if other bosses bring in similar rules. Kathleen Bogas, National Employment Lawyers’ Association vice president, said: “This will empower employers to take further steps to restrict the rights of employees – and that is the tragedy.”  n the UK reports that British companies were refusing to employ smokers, even if they promised not to smoke during working hours, first appeared in 2001. After Forest highlighted the issue, the issue did not reappear until October 2004 when anti-smoking campaigners called for Manchester health workers to be banned from lighting up in public - even when they are off duty.  The call came after health bosses in Suffolk announced plans to sack staff caught smoking, while wearing uniform or identity badges even if they are off the premises or in their own cars. The moves would be one step further than the toughest bans currently in place in the region, which stop some council and hospital staff from smoking on work premises.
 
That same month it was reported that bosses of a UK company, who dismissed an employee after 15 minutes when they found she smoked, acted legally. Lawyer Cathy Tailby said, “There is no law which would expressly prevent an employer imposing a condition that it will only employ non-smokers. As a rule, an employer can employ whomever it wants, so long as it does not breach a statute that outlaws particular sorts of discrimination.” In January 2006 ambulance staff in Staffordshire were banned from smoking in public even when off-duty, if they can be recognised by their uniform or name badge. Spokesman Bob Lee said the tough measures were being brought in, in common with other health organisations across the country. “I am not defending smoking but, for some people, smoking is a form of stress relief,” he said. “But this is the policy we are having to bring in due to national guidelines and government pressure.” The following month BT announced it would ban its workers from smoking in its offices and vans. BT’s 100,000 employees across the world, including 20,000 outside the UK will not be allowed to smoke on company premises or in vans bearing the BT logo. The decision was “warmly welcomed by anti-smoking groups who urged other companies to follow suit”.
 
In March 2006 two leading luxury hotels in Scotland threatened to sack staff that smell of smoke. In a move that goes well beyond what is required by the law, the hotels issued strict guidelines to hundreds of staff on complying with the legislation. In April 2006 Marks & Spencer employees were banned from lighting up in public with their uniforms on show. Bosses barred workers from smoking outside stores a week after banning it inside company premises and vehicles. In May 2006 a Dublin-based e-commerce business advertised for new employees saying that smokers were not welcome. The Advertising Authority of Ireland confirmed that the advertisement did not contravene its code and the Irish Government said they had no power to clamp down on such advertisements. Company director Philip Tobin commented, “If I get away with this, there is no doubt in my mind that other firms will follow suit and I certainly hope that is the case.” Meanwhile, in England, a company in Howdendyke extended its no smoking policy to a half-mile radius of the firm’s buildings. Anyone at the warehouse who was seen smoking would be sacked. In June 2006 seven supermarket workers in Scotland were fired for smoking. The employees of Morrisons in Inverurie lost their jobs after they were caught on CCTV having a cigarette break during the night shift.
 
Unusually, smokers have to look west - to the United States - for signs of common sense. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times reported that company moves against employees who smoke could backlash. Apparenty, around 30 states have passed legislation prohibiting companies from discriminating against people who embrace lifestyle choices such as smoking. Smoking in the workplace should be approached like any other workplace issue - as a management problem to be solved - rather than allowing emotion to govern the decision making process. A solution that accommodates both non-smokers and smokers has to be better than one that openly discriminates against one party. A poorly conceived smoking policy - banning smoking anywhere on company property - can have a profoundly negative effect on both staff and management. The worst of all solutions is prohibition without consultation, a policy that leaves many employees feeling neglected and hard done to. A failure to make proper provision for smokers within the premises - leaving them no with alternative but to smoke at, or nearby, the entrance to the premises - reflects badly on the employer because it illustrates an inconsiderate attitude towards staff who smoke, and looks unpleasant for any client approaching to do business.
 
Smokers pay £19,000 a minute to the Exchequer, and that's enough to pay for the whole police force. Or to put it another way, for every £1 we cost the NHS, we give it £3.60. Please don't encourage the state to dictate how I live your life. If you want to smoke you should be allowed to do so. For those who smoke it is a natural, relaxing part of life. Years of anti-smoking laws and campaigns have amounted to a public shaming of smokers that could make it harder for them to quit, a group of UBC researchers argue in a new report. There is an "urgent" need for governments to revisit their anti-smoking policies, the academics say, suggesting that the stigma around smoking could lead to patients hiding their tobacco use from doctors, and feeling desperate about ever kicking the habit. The policies run counter to how other addictions are treated by the public-health field, they argue. Their work looks at a range of anti-smoking measures they contend have "de-normalized" smoking and smokers themselves. Those include restrictions on where people can light up, bans on convenience-store "power walls" and other limits on tobacco sales, publicity campaigns to deter smoking, and graphic warnings on cigarette packages. Such programs have generally been hailed as a public-health triumph, with smoking rates plummeting to about 20% in Canada from 50% in the 1960s, according to the most recent federal statistics.
 
Intentionally or not, though, such policies have also stigmatized the remaining smokers, with various potentially negative impacts, the paper argues. It cites anecdotal reports of surgeons and other doctors refusing to treat cancer patients who smoke heavily. As many as one in four doctors who responded to a 2005 Canadian Lung Association survey admitted to providing lesser care to smokers. A University of Washington survey published last year found just under one in 10 smokers hid their tobacco use from doctors, often because of stigma. In a survey of smokers and ex-smokers soon-to-be published by the UBC group, respondents talked of being refused access to city buses after they were spotted smoking at a bus stop, harassed by strangers in public and otherwise treated as pariahs. "You really are labelled as a bad person if you smoke," said one person. Tobacco policies also now disproportionately affect the poor, as smoking rates are almost twice as high amongst those on low income as the highest income group. Katherine Frohlich, a public-health expert at the University of Montreal, said studies found that poorer smokers feel the policies have discriminated against them by, for instance, restricting their social interaction and isolating them at home.
 
Cynthia Callard of the group Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada rejected the notion, however, that smoking is now a predominately low-income phenomenon. The rates may be higher among the poor, but the sheer numbers are still much larger in middle-and upper-income groups, she said. But evidence proves otherwise, as yet another minority are increasingly marginalised and discriminated against; that smoking is a choice should be completely irrelevant. I've been smoking for five years this summer, and have no wish to quit. I know about the many health risks. I know about how much it's costing me, and how much it makes my clothes smell. I know how it could potentially cut my life expectancy considerably; my grandmother died aged just 51 from a heart condition possibly exacerbated by her heavy smoking habit. Despite all this there's a certain pleasure I receive from smoking - as do most of my friends evidently. One mate of mine lets me smoke in the house, and we are forever scrounging for a cigarette from each other, or anyone else we can manage to convince to give one up. I go through about fifteen fags a day, but I refuse to be looked down on by the health Nazis attempting to stop me from enjoying a few minutes every now and then to spark up. It's relaxing, and it helps me to concentrate. Why should anyone take those benefits away from me because they disagree with smoking? What makes it alright for them to claim their moral high ground whilst increasingly forcing us to quit smoking or suffer as second-class citizens?

2 comments:

Naggedbycats said...

Hello, this looks curiously less like copypasta than usual. :)

I'd just like to add that sure smoking does smell. So does bathing yourself in cheap perfume like an estate agent or some unpleasant women. No calls to ban perfume.

Smoking is potentially harmful? So are bungee jumping, polo, rock climbing and hang gliding. No calls to ban those.

This may surprise you, but burnt toast and any baked product also contain carcinogens. No calls to ban those.

The truth is, if existence was all about extending life, we'd end up miserable, dull, homogenised lives with little pleasure. That's not what everyone wants. Even suicide is not illegal. Deal with it, health fascists.

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