Thursday 29 September 2016

McGrath is right, it's time we gave our beleaguered smokers a break

Published 20/05/2016 | 02:30

Actress Lauren Bacall pictured with a cigarette in 1965. Today, the absolute intolerance of smoking is a kind of neo-puritanism, and junior minister Finian McGrath was pilloried for suggesting pubs and restaurants might set aside special smoking areas. Photo: AP
Actress Lauren Bacall pictured with a cigarette in 1965. Today, the absolute intolerance of smoking is a kind of neo-puritanism, and junior minister Finian McGrath was pilloried for suggesting pubs and restaurants might set aside special smoking areas. Photo: AP

Irish politics is often a form of virtue signalling. It has probably always been so, but given how tyrannical political correctness has become, the ways in which politicians are now allowed to signal their virtue has become more and more constrained, and more and more subject to censure when they step out of line.

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Consider the example this week of poor Finian McGrath, our new Super Junior Minister attached to the Department of Health with special responsibility for disability services.

Finian seems like a decent egg, and for the most part he holds very safe, politically correct views. But Finian is a smoker and as such he has a bit of human sympathy for other smokers. He wondered out loud, therefore, whether we should cut the poor, beleaguered smoking community of Ireland - an oppressed and persecuted minority if ever there was one - a bit of slack.

He wondered whether it is really necessary to keep piling all that tax on cigarettes and whether it might be a good idea to set aside special smoking areas for this despised class in pubs and restaurants.

He said he has seen smoking areas work in places like Germany and Portugal.

Everything he had to say was immediately dismissed out of hand by the great and the good of the land. This is the way we do things here. His idea was not worthy of discussion. We have developed an iron consensus around the issue (because that is what we do on issue after issue), and dissent is not to be tolerated. As usual.

I am a non-smoker and always have been but I have a lot of sympathy for smokers and I believe an awful lot of the life has gone out of the Irish pub since the ban was introduced.

The smoking ban was introduced 12 years ago. That means anyone over the age of roughly 30 remembers a time when you would leave a pub at closing time reeking of smoke even if you weren't smoking yourself. That was an unpleasant side effect of allowing people to smoke in pubs, never mind the dangers of passive smoking. It was the downside of livelier pubs.

Go back a bit further and people could smoke on the upper deck of buses. Seeing as you often had no choice but to go upstairs to find a seat that could mean sitting in smoke so thick you could barely see your hand in front of your face, especially on a winter's day when it was too cold to open any of the windows.

It was a similar situation in cinemas. They banned smoking in cinemas years ago in Australia and when my Aussie wife made her first visit to Ireland in the late 1980s she couldn't get over the fact that if you went to a movie here, the cinema screen was half obscured by the plumes of smoke rising up to the ceiling.

So yes, we overdid the smoking and tolerated smoking in places where it shouldn't have been tolerated.

We know how this kind of thing happens. Smoking became fashionable because we saw that the beautiful people smoked. There was Lauren Bacall looking effortlessly sexy as she held a cigarette aloft. There was James Dean, collar pulled up in that iconic shot in the rain on Times Square with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

In no time, every other person was smoking and the pressure was on to smoke as well, just to be one of the gang. We were even told that smoking had health benefits, for example, that the smoke would kill germs in our mouth.

Once enough people smoked, it became very hard for restaurants, pubs and so on to ban smoking even if they wanted to because that would mean losing lots of custom. And so we hit 'peak smoking'.

We saw exactly the same kind of psychology at work during the boom. Every other person seemed to be investing in property and getting rich (or so it appeared) and therefore the pressure was on the rest of us to invest in property as well. We know where that landed the country and half the world.

'Peak smoking' has now been replaced by the most almighty crackdown on smoking. Huge taxes have been imposed on tobacco products. A smoking ban has been rigorously enforced and regulators keep looking for new places to impose the ban. Cigarettes are no longer on display in shops but are hidden in special cabinets.

Cigarette advertising and sponsorship of events is banned. Dire health warnings are put on the front of cigarette packets. The public is constantly lectured about the dangers of smoking. It's no wonder smokers feel under siege.

So fair play to Finian McGrath for speaking up for smokers, even if he is attached to the Department of Health.

Under attack for his comments, including from his immediate boss, Boy Wonder and Health Minister Simon Harris, McGrath stuck to his guns on the issue of special smoking areas in pubs and restaurants, but said he was fully committed to the aim of eradicating smoking in Ireland by 2025 and of imposing further taxes on smokers.

Finian The Sinner, if not entirely repentant, had at least reduced his sin from a mortal one into a mere venial sin.

The new, absolute intolerance of smoking is a sort of neo-puritanism. Health is considered an ultimate good, never to be endangered for the sake of enjoyment.

This is why it isn't enough to crack down hard on smoking only when it affects those in the vicinity of the smokers. Smoking in and of itself must be eradicated so that even the person who smokes in secret in the back garden shed must be hunted down and eliminated.

It might be argued that this is for their own good. But this is a strange line for a liberal to take (and it is mostly liberals who are the health neo-puritans). If it affects no one else, leave them at it surely?

On the other hand, it might be argued that even the secret smoker might one day be a drain on the health system. However, heavy smokers are more likely to die early, thereby saving the system money.

This is an important point often lost in the heat of debate. The fact that smokers pay so much in tax means they are making a very big contribution to the State and obviously the more they smoke the more tax they pay, meaning also that the smokers most likely to fall into ill-health are paying the most towards their eventual care.

By one estimate (dating back to 2013), tax on cigarettes earns the State €2bn per annum and apparently this is the amount spent by the State on treating ill smokers. But what this calculation leaves out is that eventually many of those who die from smoking-related illnesses would often fall ill in other ways that would also cost a lot of money.

So McGrath is right. Smokers are being given too hard a time and the State ought to relent. It could start by letting pubs and restaurants that want to have designated smoking areas, as Finian suggested. Alas, the chances of him getting that one past the health zealots in the Cabinet and elsewhere are, precisely, zero. Smokers, in other words, will continue to be harried.

Irish Independent

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