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Mick Hume

Never mind passive smoking, the problem is passive living

It is not necessary to be in the pay of evil tobacco barons in order to question what is behind the near-hysteria now being puffed up around the issue of passive smoking in Britain, aka Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) in the USA.

When I switched from chain-smoking Player's No 6 to chain-sucking Polos some years ago, I too discovered that other people's cigarettes can be a drag. But even if smoke does get in your eyes, you should still be able to see that there are serious doubts over the veracity of all those proclamations about passive smoking posing a mortal threat to the public health. For instance...

* The increase in the incidence of lung cancer attributed to passive smoking is one order of magnitude lower than that used to justify regulating environmental risks in the USA; that is, it is lower than the risk from natural arsenic in water, eating mushrooms twice a week, or eating Japanese seafood regularly. (See Professor Robert Nilsson, 'Is environmental tobacco smoke a risk factor for lung cancer?' in R Bate, What Risk?: Science, Politics and Public Health, 1998)

* The anti-smoking crusaders argue that those who live with smokers run an increased risk, of about 25 per cent, of developing lung cancer. Even if that figure is correct, the fact remains that lung cancer is a relatively uncommon tumour; a 25 per cent increase in a very, very low risk still means that the absolute risk of getting it is very low - especially for women. There is also a reasonable argument that even the increased relative risk of lung cancer from passive smoking is largely the result of bias and other methodological errors in the surveys cited.

* The evidence is contradictory. Some studies have shown no increased risk from ETS, while others have shown that ETS causes higher rates of lung cancer among passive smoking women than exist among active smoking women! And what about the fact that women non-smokers who develop cancer tend to get adeno-carcinoma, while smokers get squamous/oat cell carcinoma; are we to conclude that cigarette smoke somehow causes one type of cancer in active smokers and an entirely different brand of the disease among passive smokers?

All in all, the issue of passive smoking and health is far from being the open-and-shut case we are often led to believe. Yet the arguments of the public health lobby have been inhaled with little or no dissent, and used to justify the kind of draconian bans on smoking in public places that are now drifting across the Atlantic from America to Britain. Why?

It strikes me that, given the hazy evidence of any threat to health, much of the panic cannot really be about ETS at all. The furore over passive smoking seems more symbolic of the wider climate in society, a kind of metaphor for the public mood.

The campaign against ETS looks like another convenient platform from which to broadcast the cri de coeur of our insecure age: 'My life is being messed up by other people!' - in this case, by the profit-grabbing tobacco industry and its anti-social customers.

Like too many other concerns of the moment, the panic about ETS is based on a variant of 'stranger danger', an exaggerated fear of your personal space being polluted by unknown assailants. Those sad individuals who describe themselves as passive smokers join the queue of people complaining that, through utterly no fault of their own, their future is totally being put at risk. And like all the other blameless victims, they want Somebody To Do Something About It - the government must ban it, the tobacco companies must pay them compensation, while they themselves concentrate on simply coping with the trauma.

The big problem revealed here is not so much passive smoking as passive living. The fear of being enveloped by ETS illustrates the fashion for people to behave as helpless lumps on the receiving end of life; as objects to whom things happen rather than subjects who try to do things themselves; as children in need of protection rather than as grown-ups in search of fulfilment.

Passive living is about blaming somebody/ thing else for your problems, and abdicating any sense of personal responsibility for what is to become of you. Those complaining about passive smoking are far from the only sufferers of a social affliction that is reaching epidemic proportions.

Typically for the times, many of those labelled 'active' smokers now appear just as keen to portray themselves as hapless victims. They have been trying to sue the tobacco companies for huge compensation pay-outs in the USA and the UK, on the grounds that the corporations conned them into buying cigarettes and developing cancer. The pathetic plea that 'they made me smoke against my will - 40 times a day' should have been laughed out of court; yet the governments in Washington and Whitehall have endorsed it by banning cigarette adverts, presumably on the assumption that the rest of us poor gullible saps will not be able to resist lighting up if we see one more snap of the Marlboro Man's nicotine-tanned features.

Don't worry if you have never smoked or been anywhere near a fuggy bar. There are now plenty of other off-the-peg reasons why you are not responsible for your life, why whatever fate befalls you is not really your fault.

Just about any form of behaviour, for instance, can now be attributed to some kind of addiction or other. These days it seems you can be addicted not just to drink or drugs, but also to chocolate, computer games, shopping, scratchcards or sex. And since addicts can never be cured - they are only ever 'in recovery', taking their 12-step programmes 'one day at a time' - there is nothing you can do about your life but to lie back on the therapist's couch and 'survive'.

If you are not (yet) an addict, perhaps your problems are due to one of the many new medical syndromes which are apparently proliferating across society, especially among the young. With parents and schools both seemingly keen to get their excuses for educational failure in early, more and more children are finding themselves tagged with labels like 'attention deficit disorder sufferer' or 'dyslexic'. Examiners now have to wade through almost as many doctor's notes as answer papers. And woe betide any teacher who dares to write 'Could do better' on the school report of a pupil deemed medically unfit to be educated.

If you think you are too old for these schoolyard excuses, think again; you can still turn the clock back and blame your current problems on your childhood experiences. Indeed, with the boom in alleged genetic explanations for all manner of human behaviour, it is now possible to claim that your fate was sealed before you were even born. The DNA dunnit, m'lud.

And even if you made it into the world in one piece, contemporary wisdom has it that you may well have been scarred for life by the common experience of being bullied or abused as a child; remember, the experts insist that child abuse can be 'emotional' as well as physical, so your future could easily have been screwed up by your being shouted at or sent to bed without pudding.

The spread of passive living today, the refusal to take responsibility for anything, is well illustrated by the increase in personal litigation in the USA and Britain. People are suing each other, companies and institutions as never before, usually in an attempt to allot blame and extract compensation.

Neighbours sue neighbours over domestic disputes; students sue colleges for failing to pass them and their parents for failing to fund them; employees sue companies for harassment in response to workplace problems; criminals sue local authorities for not keeping them on the straight and narrow. Time was when only a crazy like the Yorkshire Ripper would claim that 'the voices' (in his case of God) made him do it. Now almost every petty crook and thug claims to have been set on the road to crime by some sinister influence, be it video nasties or a chemical imbalance. And what's more, these days their pleading is taken seriously.

Not so long ago, during the Thatcher/ Reagan years in the eighties, the call for 'individual responsibility' became associated with those who defended 'popular capitalism'. Among other things, it was a way of shifting responsibility for the failings of the market economy on to the shoulders of individuals, especially the poorest. The riposte that 'society is to blame', meanwhile, was linked with radical critics of the system.

Today that has all changed. Blaming 'society' for what happens to individuals is now a mainstream attitude, which can even be mobilised in defence of the status quo. In the age of Tina (There Is No Alternative), social change is right off the agenda. In which case, the argument that society is to blame ceases to have any real consequences. It simply becomes another way of saying that as individuals our fate is not our fault, that we are powerless, so all we can do is wallow in our alienation, seek some more counselling, and buy a ticket for the pilgrimage to the shrine of the patron saint of victims at Althorp. After all, if all of us ('society') are to blame for all of life's problems, then no one of us can really be held responsible for anything.

In such stomach-churning circumstances, it seems to me imperative that those of us who believe that it does not have to be this way should take up the banners of individual responsibility. Insisting that we are responsible adults capable of thinking and acting for ourselves has to be our starting point, if we are serious about taking control of our own destiny.

Of course, society in the proper sense of the word remains very important in shaping what happens to us all. And in our society, a lot of people do have the cards stacked against them; no amount of free will is going to get the poor into the boardrooms or on to the golf courses where real power is exercised.

But for all that, today more than ever we should insist upon the possibility and the importance of taking individual responsibility for our lives. People do have the potential to make their own history, albeit not in circumstances of their own choosing.

The alternative to taking responsibility is to take cover from life, to live in fear of it. All that remains is to complain about the unfairness of it all, plead for those in authority to protect us from other people and their cigarette smoke, and hope to prolong a miserable existence as long as possible. If breathing smoke-free air is enough excitement for some, fair enough. But anybody waiting for passive living to deliver anything more is advised not to hold their breath.

Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998

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