Monday, September 11, 2006

Smoking

As a non-smoker, I've never really understood the purpose of smoking. It's a waste of money, and it makes your breath, hair and clothes stink.

Glamorous? Now that hospitals don't allow smoking indoors, you can sometimes see patients in dressing gowns huddled in the street outside the hospital, or in the hospital car park. Looking at these desperately ill people, it is easy to see why cigarettes used to be called "gaspers".

I can see why smoking is attractive to certain groups of people in certain cultures. If the people around you cannot afford cigarettes, smoking is a sign of status.

I seem to remember seeing some statistics that suggested that smoking rates peaked as a country was developing economically, and then took several decades to fall. From memory it was something like this (if you've got better data, please add a comment and I'll correct):
  • USA: prosperity starts 1940s, smoking declines 1970s
  • UK: prosperity starts 1950s, smoking declines 1980s
  • West Germany: prosperity starts 1960s, smoking declines 1990s
I think there may also be some gender issues, especially for women smoking in male-dominated societies. (I wonder which countries the cigarette manufacturers are targetting now?)


But since this is the POSIWID blog, I'm going to look at the purpose of not smoking. The effects of smoking (active and passive) have been extensively reseached and debated, and are even summarized on the cigarette packets themselves. So it might seem obvious that the purpose of not smoking is to alter some set of health outcomes. But health campaigners (including governments) have been going on about this for decades, and lots of people are still smoking. Clearly there are many people for whom these supposed health outcomes provide insufficient motivation to give up smoking, for whom the purpose of smoking (whatever it is) outweighs the purpose of not smoking.

So we come to stage two - progressively reducing the number of places where smoking is permitted. This is also a badge of status and prosperity. Ireland was one of the first countries to introduce a smoking ban, signalling to the rest of the world that Ireland is now economically thriving, and its bars and restaurants are full of people who no longer need to smoke.

As a non-smoker, I'm happy that I can eat out without having smoke blown over my food and my children. (Many smokers have developed the unpleasant habit of holding the offending item away from the people at their own table, so that the smoke goes to the neighbouring table instead.)

But I wonder about the effects of these regulations. Will they really reduce smoking, or will they drive smokers into defiant little bands? Does smoking reemerge as a self-sacrificing act of rebellion against an over-regulated society? And does this establish a new purpose for smoking?

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