No smoke without ire

I smoke, and I live in Glasgow. Both these things are relevant because it looks very much like Scotland will beat the rest of the UK in the race to implement a ban on smoking in pubs, and because Glasgow council has unveiled a crackdown on smokers – not because of health, but because of littering. Apparently the big companies in the centre of town who banned smoking to save on insurance premiums are too tight-fisted to invest in outside ashtrays, so when their smoking staff hang around the front of the building, they flick their cigarette butts in the street. It’s a growing problem for the city, so they’re going to invoke anti-littering laws and charge £50 for dropping a cigarette butt. And to be fair, even the firms that *have* invested in ashtrays are finding that some staff ignore them.

I’m in the unusual position – for me at least – of not knowing what I think about these things. Oh, the smoker in me hates the idea of a ban or of being fined for flicking a butt into the gutter – after all, smoking isn’t illegal, if the demand for non-smoking pubs is so great, why aren’t there more? Market forces would mean non-smoking pubs thrived, while smoky ones went to the wall; the problem of cigarette butts doesn’t seem like a major problem when, every night of the week, I watch arseholes chucking drinks cans, takeaway wrappers, plastic bags, newspapers and god knows what else into the gardens of the flats across the road, etc etc etc – but the rational part of me thinks, okay.

Anyone who honestly believes smoking isn’t harmful is an idiot. Sure, there’s lots of junk science out there: the oft-quoted Californian EPA study into second hand smoke didn’t so much bend the stats as build a giant bullshit mountain that could block out the sun; smoking is often highlighted as the only evil in the world when places such as Hope Street are so polluted, having a smoke gives your lungs a break; there’s a tendency to shout “vested interests!” if a study is even tangentially connected to the tobacco industry, but to shout “hurrah!” when a study is funded by big pharmaceutical firms who have a vested interest in getting people on to expensive and ineffective nicotine replacement therapies; and so, depressingly, on… but smoking is really bad news. The smoking=cancer thing may well have been overstated, but there’s irrefutable evidence of the link between smoking and all kinds of diseases best described as “really bad shit”. And while the risk of second hand smoke may have been overstated, it *is* clearly a health risk. If you believe that smoking isn’t dangerous, you’re in the same camp as the people who believe that drugs make them better drivers (because of course, muscle relaxants are soooooo good for your reflexes).

It’s a constant source of debate on the internet and, like all debates, there are no grey areas. I can summarise the positions of each camp as follows: smokers believe that all anti-smokers should be shot; anti-smokers believe that all smokers should be shot. Great debate, folks!

So, who’s right? The answer is, of course, nobody. I’ll argue against the smokers first.

Smoking’s legal. It’s not up to anyone to tell me I can’t smoke.

Hmmm. Drinking’s legal, as is driving. Combine the two and it’s a pretty nasty combination. Same with smoking: personally, I don’t think it’s fair to stop people killing themselves if they so wish, but as soon as other people enter the equation then it’s no longer a personal choice. If you want to drink ten bottles of vodka, go ahead. If you want to drive a car afterwards, that’s a different thing altogether.

Non-smokers are whining nazis.

Some of them are, that’s for sure. The ones who want to ban smoking *outside* spring to mind. But smokers are a big part of the problem. Me, I don’t smoke in non-smoking areas. But I’ve spent many a train or bus journey inhaling other people’s smoke, because they’re too arrogant, ignorant or flat-out-stupid to realise that because they can’t wait 20 minutes for a smoke, they’re making non-smokers think that every smoker is an arsehole. Your lack of respect for other people fuels their lack of tolerance towards smokers.

All the statistics are bullshit. Look at the EPA study, even a judge said it was bullshit.

Since then there have been all kinds of research projects – independent, whiter than white ones – that have concluded that smoking is “really bad shit” and which didn’t take any shortcuts, which didn’t select only the data that fit their agenda, and which haven’t been shot to pieces by their peers. Sorry, folks, but the results are in and guess what? We’re screwed!

Bill Hicks was right. He said…

Yeah, he said “non-smokers die every day!” and then died of cancer, aged 32. Using him as a figurehead for smokers’ rights seems somewhat ironic. Or stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I thought his smoking stuff was funny. But he was a comedian, not a scientist.

We’re being picked on! Look at the problems caused by cars! By industrial pollution!

If I smack someone around the head, should I get off because Osama Bin Laden is much worse?

Look at non-smoking sections in pubs – they’re usually empty. Everyone’s in the smoking section.

That’s because you’re wilfully misunderstanding how things work. My wife hates smoking – really hates it – and hates the fact I smoke. However, while she doesn’t particularly like smoky pubs (that’s probably an understatement), she goes to them because *she’s married to a smoker*. When we go to a place where smoking is allowed, I smoke; my wife hates it, but she puts up with it. When we have a choice between a place where smoking is allowed and one where smoking isn’t allowed, we tend to go to the one where smoking is allowed because my wife knows how uncomfortable I get if I can’t smoke. My wife isn’t in smoky pubs because she likes them; she’s there because she doesn’t want me to be uncomfortable. It’s an important difference (and before you start thinking I’m some kind of monster, I don’t smoke in the flat – I hang out of the window, where I’ve placed an ashtray so I don’t litter – and I don’t smoke in the car). That’s why you’ll find non-smokers in the smoking sections of pubs: they’re not there because they want to be, but because they don’t want their smoking friends to get agitated and uncomfortable.

To recap, then, smoking is dumb, it’s lethal, it’s not some divine right. With me so far? Okay then! Non-smokers here I come!

Smoking costs the NHS a fortune.

Yep, an estimated £1.5 billion per year to treat smoking-related illnesses. Which is a drop in the ocean compared to the £9.5 billion generated in tax from, er, sales of tobacco products. And if you want to be cynical, just think how much extra money is saved by smokers dropping dead years before their time.

Smokers should just quit.

Christ, if only it was that easy. I’ve been hypnotised (twice), zapped with lasers, gone cold turkey, tried eating an entire pack of cigs, tried smoking three packs of cigs, chewed nicotine gum, tried patches, used an inhalator, sucked nicotine lozenges, tried herbal cigarettes and, most memorably, taken the miracle stop-smoking drug Zyban – which made me so depressed, I was seriously convinced that I was losing my mind (my Zyban experience would make a long blog entry in its own right, and may well do one day). And I’m still on the smokes. It’s not as easy as you think – if it was, the millions of people who try and fail to stop smoking every year would all be non-smokers.

Non-smokers shouldn’t have to put up with smoke.

I agree, to a point. But it can get ridiculous. Non-smoking restaurants? No problem. Non-smoking airplanes? Sure. Non-smoking airports, buildings the size of cities where a single cupboard can’t be provided for us addicts to poison ourselves out of sight, smell and earshot? Oh, come on. And some of you, to be frank, take it too far. Wanting smoking banned in the open air? Moaning that someone *ten floors below you* smokes in their flat? Having terms and conditions of employment where people can be fired for smoking, during their lunch break, when they’re not on company premises? Those are all real examples… doesn’t any of that seem a teensy-weensy bit, y’know, over the top?

Smokers ignore non-smoking signs.

The problem isn’t that they’re smokers. It’s that they’re arseholes. Throw the book at them. Make it a big, heavy book, and throw it really hard.

Cigarette butts are litter.

Yes, they are. We have litter bins for litter; why not stick a bit on top for smokes? Then by all means throw the book at people who throw their cigarettes into the street.

Smokers get smoking breaks, whereas non-smokers don’t. We have to sit and work while smokers spent 10, 15 minutes outside.

If you’ve never spent time gossiping, or checking personal email, or making personal phone calls, or staring into space, or thinking about the weekend, or wondering what your girlfriend/boyfriend is doing right now, or making coffee, or seeing if there are any good deals on, or going to chat to a colleague, then perhaps you’ve got a point. And you’re a bloody liar.

It’s awful and should be banned altogether.

That worked really well when the US banned alcohol and later, embarked on a war on drugs, didn’t it? Drug dealers are already moving into cigarette smuggling in the UK: it’s much safer than drug dealing (the penalties are laughable) and the profits are almost as high. And there’s the great big hole a ban would leave in the nation’s tax take to consider, too.

Just you wait. The Scottish Executive’s consultation exercise ends soon, and you’ll see the nation wants a smoking ban everywhere.

The consultation was self-selecting: by its very nature, it’s going to be dominated by people with strong anti-smoking opinions. Did you actually look at the document, or the web site? It takes forever to complete, and it’s dominated by comments fields rather than yes-no answers. Most people won’t bother filling it out; the ones who did will have strong opinions and too much time on their hands. Of course I was one of them ;-) I’m willing to bet that if you take the results (when they come out) and apply the percentages to the whole population, you’ll come to the conclusion that all smokers believe they should be taken out and executed.

So, both camps have dug in and can’t see the other side’s point of view (if you read political blogs, you’ll know that’s not unusual). But do I have any bright ideas for solving the problem? I’m glad you asked that :-)

Ban it. Ban smoking in pubs, clubs, restaurants, airports, whatever. It’s lethal. But when you ban it, please take into account that an awful lot of people smoke and will continue to do so, ban or no ban. So don’t try to prevent people from smoking in the open air; in places like airports, where check-in times are ridiculously early and delays can last for hours or even days, either provide a high-tech smoking area (like the ones in Glasgow airport) or let smokers go back outside for a quick smoke once they’ve been through security (make us go through security again on our return, there’s no point in being stupid here); if smoking is banned in your workplace, don’t try and extend that ban to people’s lunch breaks offsite or worse – and I’ve seen contracts including this – what people do in their own time when you’re no longer in charge of their activities. If you want people to do what suits you 24/7, up the wage rate by 300% so you’re *paying* them 24/7…

I could sum up the solution in two words: be reasonable. That applies equally to anti-smokers and to pro-smokers. If you’re a smoker, respect other people. Don’t light up in non-smoking areas, don’t campaign for some illusory right to smoke whenever and wherever you feel like it, don’t treat non-smokers with contempt. If you’re a non-smoker, accept the fact that many people smoke for whatever reason, and make the world safe for non-smokers without putting unreasonable demands on smokers (the airport example is a case in point: for a non-smoker, an eight hour delay is hellish enough; for a smoker, the same delay in a place where you cannot smoke and the rules are enforced by people with machine guns is a million times worse. By all means segregate the smokers, but forcing them to stay airside with nowhere to smoke is worse than replacing their entire record collection with Celine Dion albums).

As ever, Bill & Ted put it best: “Be excellent to each other”.