In a recent interview with vegan magazine Viva!Life, Kerry McCarthy MP stated that ‘I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it’. This campaign would shame people who eat meat in the same way we exclude smokers and shame them for their habit. Now I am not a smoker, but I do not think bullying people is the way to stop people from smoking, and I think it is wrong to bully smokers, especially looking at statistics on which groups tend to smoke more; we shouldn’t even be treating smokers like smokers.
The two groups whom we see tend to smoke more are those in lower socioeconomic groups and those with mental health problems. According to the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), ‘Death rates from tobacco are two to three times higher among disadvantaged social groups’ and that ‘Smoking has been identified as the single biggest cause of inequality in death rates between rich and poor in the UK’. CNN quotes a Duke University study that says economic hardship can lead to a feeling of a lack of self-worth which means that people are more likely to take up smoking. In addition to this, the Centers for Disease Control in the United States in a 2013 report wrote how people with mental health conditions are 70% more likely to smoke. In addition to this, a 2013 article has shown a strong link between those whom were abused as children and smoking. These statistics point to the fact that smoking isn’t just a dirty habit, but is also something that people do to provide themselves with comfort and to relieve stress.
If you happen to be in one of these unfortunate positions, I am incredibly sorry to hear that, and if you need help, there are many great support networks that are out there that can help you such as The Samaritans – but can you imagine if you suffered a hardship, and some nicotine can help calm you down or help relax you as you are stressed only to be excluded from certain public places, to have graphic advertisements shown on TV and on billboards all around you which remind you of the horrors of what they are doing; plus, for it to be socially acceptable for MPs to say that we should bully other people in a similar way. These people do not need to feel victimised anymore.
The problem that I have with the bullying tactics that are used by anti-smoking groups is that it doesn’t get to the core of why people smoke. Yes, some people do smoke because they enjoy it (if they do who am I to judge as long as it doesn’t harm me) but others smoke because they may be facing or have faced tough times and their nicotine addiction was some form of comfort for them. For these people we should be promoting healthier ways to deal with stress, anxiety or any other mental health problems that they may be facing is a better strategy. The problem as I see it is that smokers are in a minority, ASH claims that around one in six people in Britain smoke. This represents a small fraction of the population. Anti-smoking campaigns tend to be very popular as a political strategy as it gains the majority’s support. But just because the majority likes something doesn’t mean that if is the correct thing to do.
For those of us who don’t smoke you maybe saying, ‘Why should we care about smokers, our taxes pay for their medical care.’ Well according to ASH £2bn is spent on the NHS in England to treat smokers (though they claim heightened costs due to a decrease in productivity that takes the total up to £12.9bn). However the tax on cigarettes and VAT on cigarettes took in around ‘£12.3bn for the financial year 2013-2014’. As you can see from the data, smoking can pay for its cost to society, so you shouldn’t worry too much – though I am with you up to a point on that. My main concern is that we are not getting into the issues around why people smoke.
My main problem that I had with her quote is that it seems acceptable to bully and ostracise smokers, but how is it right to do that to anyone? Just because you are in the majority doesn’t mean that you can exclude a smaller group of people without knowing the reasons why they do something. Each person who smokes has their own reason for doing so; you cannot put a ‘one size fits all’ policy over them. If we really cared about people’s health and wellbeing we shouldn’t be excluding and bullying them, but instead learning about how we can help them.